Lafayette County Election Commissioner Laura Antonow sits in a burnt orange lounge chair in her home, talking about voting rights and trying to figure out how to piece together a fragile democracy.
Across the room is a latest project, a 3D puzzle of New York. Antonow likes to work puzzles of all kinds – whether figuring out how to make voting precincts accessible for all citizens in Lafayette county, or finding ways to diversify the university.
Voting, she said, is more than just checking a ballot box. Voting in one precinct is voting to mend larger problems and raises social awareness.
Growing up in Bloomfield, New Jersey during the Vietnam era, she remembered watching war protests on the nightly news. Her father, Walt, had served overseas in the Air Force at the time of the war.
The coverage fueled public expression, through protests and letter writing. She learned to admire people fighting for social change and being critical of the government, striking out for their beliefs.
Voting, she said, is one way of fighting for one’s beliefs, and is a civic responsibility. As election commissioner, she wants to make sure every voter’s choice is measured.
Her elementary school in New Jersey served as a voting precinct. The smell of baked goods lingered in the hallway as she and her mother, Janice, sat at a table selling baked goods to voters as they came through to cast their ballots.
The most exciting part of voting when she was a child was going into the voting booth with her mother and closing the curtain.
“I’d sit up there with her and watch people come in and vote. I was always kind of fascinated by the voting process,” Antonow recalled.
After the third grade, her family moved to Oxford, and she has lived in other cities as an adult. Wherever life took her though, she returned to Lafayette County. In time, she viewed voting as a way to express civic responsibility
“I started as a Mississippi voter, and then became a Texas voter, and then New York and now back in Mississippi again. And I think it’s one way that citizens can feel like they have some say in the bigger picture.”
Antonow made it her mission to encourage residents to vote, and to fight for equal opportunities within the voting process.
“There are lots of sneaky ways people take away voting rights that aren’t explicit. Like they’re not saying you can’t, you know, you don’t get to vote, but they’re making it hard for people to vote. And that, to me, is the same as telling them they can’t vote,” she said.
One problem people are faced with is getting to the polls in time. Because elections are only one day, and the polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., many miss the opportunity to cast their ballots due to work or illness.
Transportation is another problem. City buses do not travel outside city limits, and people without cars do not have an opportunity to cast their ballots either.
Antonow is working with other election commissioners in the state to combat these problems.
“It was really frightening, how close America was to a real shift in democracy functioning the way it was designed to,” she said, referring to the Trump administration.
Her passion for speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves reaches back many years.
She remembers a significant day in 1995, while living in New York City, when an unarmed West African immigrant was shot by a white police officer.
“He had a wallet in his head. He pulled his wallet out in a stairwell at his apartment and the police shot him 41 times.” Amadou Diallo, 22, who came to America from Guinea and worked as a street peddler, died at the scene, the New York Times reported.
Later that day, on her subway commute, she scanned the platform in Brooklyn. She noticed she was one of the only white people there.
When a white policeman walked through, she felt safer, she recalled. People of color on the subway platform might have felt differently about that officer’s presence, she mused.
“It was a moment of awakening,” she said, “of my realizing my white privilege and what a different world experience white people and minority groups have.”
Antonow’s dedication to service and love of the community began around that time. She advocates for women and families at Ole Miss, minority groups, animals, and voters in Lafayette County.
She said, “Just because you love something doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of it. If you love something, you want it to be its best. If I’m critical of something the university does, it’s not because I don’t love the university, it is because I want it to be better.”
Change begins with critique. A case in point: pay equity in the workplace. She has been a long-serving member of the Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of Women, which explored pay equity at the university.
Serving on this commission is one of her proudest moments because she implemented change that helped others.
“Being paid less impacts you for the rest of your life, even if it’s just for a short period of time,” said Antonow.
The commission’s work showed that men were making more money than women at the university, for no particular reason. Women were making 80% of what men were making, and after the group brought this issue to the fore, the university began to address the inequities.
Antonow’s interest in animal welfare began while she lived in New York as well. She would pass a butcher shop every day and see animal carcasses hanging in the windows.
She then could not stomach the idea of eating meat anymore and became a vegetarian for a decade. “Animal welfare is a big deal to me. I guess that goes along with kind of wanting to speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves.”
In 2021, Antonow received the Diversity Innovation Award at the University of Mississippi, awarded annually to an individual who has made a deep contribution in this area.
She worked to develop a plan to help student parents and employees with children have more access to childcare. She worked with LGBTQ+ initiatives, on campus and in the community. “I want to make sure that we have students across the board, participating in internships and having the support they need,” she said.
Antonow teaches classes in the School of Education focusing on the cultural context of education, and comparative education. Her passion is for trying to understand people’s lives and challenges they face.
She holds great hope for the next generations and for democracy’s future, provided people find time to reflect and allow their anger to calm.
The 24-hour hours news cycle and social media fuels people’s anger. “We’re exposed to so much more. It’s easy to feel bombarded, whereas before you got a newspaper once a day. You read about things that happened two days ago and nothing seemed as urgent,” she said.
“I don’t think democracy is dead, I think it’s fragile. I never thought America could ever go anywhere, until last year,” Antonow said, referring to the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. “It needs protection and I am hopeful people will protect it.”
Hadley Hoskins is a sophomore from Steele, Missouri studying Integrated Marketing Communications with a minor in business and law studies. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling and doing heated yoga.