The Tennessee legislature will soon vote on a bill that is deliberately intended to suppress black turnout, even though Tennessee is among the five states with the lowest voter participation.
The bill in the senate would create some of the most aggressive regulations on large-scale voter registration in the nation — like civil penalties for groups that unintentionally file incomplete voter registration forms. It would impose criminal sanctions on organizers who don’t attend training sessions run by local officials and on groups that fail to mail in voter registration forms in a short 10-day window.
Things like typos and missing entries are inevitable. That’s why there are already checks and balances; the election commission verifies voter information against state databases. This doesn’t create an unmanageable burden on state officials, nor does it require a draconian bill. Why don’t lawmakers make voter registration automatic, instead of making it much more difficult?
This is a clear attack on the successful efforts to mobilize black voters during the 2018 midterm elections. Close to 90,000 black voters were registered by the Tennessee Black Voter Project, led by the activist Tequila Johnson and the Equity Alliance, which partner with my organization, the Black Voters Matter Fund.
In Davidson County, whose county seat is Nashville, turnout was consistent with a presidential year — there was a remarkable 81 percent increase over the last midterm election. In Shelby County, which contains Memphis, the state’s largest city, turnout spiked 50 percent over the last midterm election to nearly 100,000 voters.
These Republican lawmakers, led by Secretary of State Tre Hargett, fear the results of an expanding black electorate: victories for Democratic and progressive candidates. In Shelby County, for example, a blue wave flipped key positions like county mayor and sheriff and control of the county commission in August 2018. In Nashville, voters approved an important ballot initiative establishing a community oversight board for police accountability.
Even before the massive 2018 voter registration drives, Knoxville activists ran a slate of progressive candidates for City Council and successfully elected the city’s first Indian-American woman as a first-time candidate.
In short, black-led, community-based organizations throughout Tennessee have been registering more voters, turning them out to vote and winning more elections for progressive issues and candidates. The fact that racial progress here has resulted in a white backlash is consistent with Tennessee history. Tennessee’s attack on black-led voter registration is also an escalation of similar strategies seen in Georgia. While he was secretary of state, Brian Kemp aggressively pursued criminal investigations against voter registration groups like the New Georgia Project, founded by Stacey Abrams.
Now, Tennessee’s secretary of state is taking that to the next level. If we’re not careful, this strategy could spread across the country even faster than the wave of voter ID laws.
The State Senate in Tennessee should vote this bill down. If not, Gov. Bill Lee must veto it. Such an attack on voting rights will cause Tennessee to become a pariah state and make him look like the segregationist former governors George Wallace of Alabama and Orval Faubus of Arkansas.
The many presidential candidates seeking the Democratic nomination ought to prioritize voting rights and condemn voter suppression. Speaking out and helping to defeat this bill would be a good start. But the candidates must do even more to address the broader issue of voting rights. They should forcefully express the urgent need for the For the People Act, which addresses voting access, election security, political spending and more. And at least one candidate must be willing to go even bigger than the For the People Act — to demand the voting rights equivalent of the Green New Deal.
Going “big” would include consequences for people who violate voting rights. Like Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, who effectively stole the election from Abrams, they are often allowed to prosper from their illegal and unethical actions.
If Tennessee wants to criminalize people, let them be bad actors who engage in voter suppression. We must view the failures of this nation’s electoral processes in general — and voter suppression in particular — as existential threats, just as much as climate change and economic inequality.