By: The Equity Alliance
Tennessee has been in the bottom five states for voter participation in the last three presidential elections. It is arguably the worst state in the country at galvanizing and encouraging its citizens to participate in the civic process and is one of the primary reasons that The Equity Alliance (TEA) was founded. With stats like 50th in voter turnout and 40th in voter registration in the 2014 midterm elections, similar stats in the 2016 presidential elections, and similarly abysmal turnout for local elections, TEA swung into action to address the underlying reasons people, particularly African-Americans don’t vote. Partnering with groups like the Tennessee Black Voter Project, TEA and coalition partners registered nearly 50,000 people for the 2018 midterm elections. Most of the registrations were from people of color.
In response, Tennessee’s Secretary of State, Tre Hargett, one of the highest paid in the country and in one of the lowest performing states in the country, recently introduced a bill that would significantly diminish voter registration efforts of advocacy groups. The bill, which is slated for a vote in the Tennessee legislature this week, attaches civil and criminal penalties on large scale voter registration drives that include registration forms with errors. It also imposes the requirement to attend a training prior to hosting a voter registration drive as well as requiring organizations to add an additional statement to all of their voter registration reminders that they are not authorized by the Secretary of State. If passed, Tennessee will be the only state in the nation to criminalize such a thing. There is a limited exception for volunteer groups. However, even groups that have a grant to conduct voter registration or have a paid staffer are still subject to these new requirements.
The effects of this kind of legislation would be critically problematic. Voter advocacy groups, churches, sororities and fraternities and every other kind of civic organization that conducts voter registration drives would find themselves at an impasse. The risk of civil or criminal penalties for innocuous mistakes, oversights, or unverifiable information would dissuade any individual or group from conducting voter registration drives in a state that needs it the most – the volunteer state no less. Legislation that uses intimidation and scare tactic politics seems to be the new norm. In a supermajority state like Tennessee, those in power take for granted the grassroots efforts of groups and activists that expertly rally the troops to respond to what is ostensibly voter suppression efforts.
Groups like TEA, American Civil Liberties Union, Tennessee Immigrant, and Refugee Rights Coalition, Think Tennessee, Civic Tennessee, and others have excited a resounding response in opposition of the bill, and Tennessee has received national attention around the issue. Stacey Abrams, arguably the country’s most outspoken and preeminent avenger of voting equity, joined the conversation and vehemently opposed the bill. And while grassroots efforts have been promising and the national coverage heightens attention around the bill, we still need Tennesseans to contact their state representatives and urge them to vote down this overt attempt at voter suppression.
The House will consider the bill on Monday, and The Equity Alliance will host a rally to oppose it at 4:00 pm at the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville. Wear all black and show Tennessee that we will not stand idly by while our voting rights are stripped from us.