The Equity Alliance leaders make case for mail-in voting amid pandemic

Voters wearing masks wait in line to vote in Milwaukee's April 7 primary. Only staff five polling sites out of 180 were staffed because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Isiah Holmes/ Wisconsin Examiner)
Voters wearing masks wait in line to vote in Milwaukee's April 7 primary. Only staff five polling sites out of 180 were staffed because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Isiah Holmes/ Wisconsin Examiner)

Tennessee is one of 16 states that requires an excuse in order to vote by mail, a policy stance under increased scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nonprofit and nonpartisan Nashville-based Equity Alliance filed a lawsuit last week seeking to expand vote-by-mail because of the pandemic.

Tennessee allows for mail-in voting if someone is ill, overseas or serving in the military. A push to expand mail-in voting has been met with resistance among some Republicans, who argue it increases the possibility of voting fraud.

But momentum is trending for expanding mail-in voting. According to research by the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, seven of the 16 states without excuse-free vote-by-mail have at least temporarily changed their policies due to the pandemic after court rulings or executive orders by their governors.

In those states, courts have issued rulings or governors have moved to expand mail-in voting by counting the pandemic as a public health reason to justify requesting an absentee ballot even if the voter making the request isn’t sick.

Tennessee Lookout interviewed Charlane Oliver and Tequila Johnson, co-executive directors of the Equity Alliance, earlier this week about their lawsuit and push to expand voting rights in the Volunteer State.

Charlane Oliver, executive director of The Equity Alliance.
Charlane Oliver, executive director of The Equity Alliance.

The Equity Alliance describes itself as a grassroots advocacy group that “seeks to equip citizens with tools and strategies to engage in the civic process and empower them to take action on issues affecting their daily lives.” The group has fought against laws requiring a government photo identification in order to vote and pushed to ease voter registration restrictions.

In addition to the Equity Alliance, plaintiffs in last week’s lawsuit are the Memphis-based A. Phillip Randolph Institute, the state chapter of the NAACP and two individual voters.

In comments to USA Today last month, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Secretary of State, which oversees elections, said the problem with expanding voting by mail is logistics, arguing it would take too long to implement such a policy this year.

TENNESSEE LOOKOUT: How did the Equity Alliance become involved in the issue of expanding mail-in voting, and why do you think it’s an important issue for Tennessee right now?

CHARLANE OLIVER: Our mission at the Equity Alliance, we’re focused on the empowerment of African Americans in Tennessee particularly as it relates to voter empowerment. We are here to protect the voting  rights of black Americans, black Tennesseans. However, the coronavirus is impacting everyone. But as we’re seeing the testing and data, the African American community is getting hit the hardest.

We want to make sure that not only does our community get protected from the coronavirus with their health, but also with democracy. That’s how we came to be involved in this lawsuit. We’re one of the premiere voting rights groups in Tennessee and we want to make sure our community does not get disenfranchised. This coronavirus could be used as a tool to further suppress votes because of the strict absentee laws we already have on the books. Certain people won’t be able to get carved out of the process if we act now.

TENNESSEE LOOKOUT: Wisconsin held an election amid the pandemic, and it’s been reported that some people contracted the virus while voting. Does that concern you for holding an election here in Tennessee?

Tequila Johnson, co-executive director, The Equity Alliance.
Tequila Johnson, co-executive director, The Equity Alliance.

TEQUILA JOHNSON: We know in the south COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting African Americans. And we also know that we are less likely to have access to the health care we need and amenities we need to live and operate. So it’s extremely unfair to have COVID-19 and have to go to the polls. A huge percentage of our voting population are our most vulnerable population, who are susceptible to COVID-19. So not only does this impact the African American community, but it impacts our democracy because it impacts our ability to go vote. Just based on statistics, the number of people who go vote, the majority of them are over the age of 60. What are we doing? Are we forcing our older generation to have to choose between their health and going out to vote?

TENNESSEE LOOKOUT: You work in the area of voting rights and advocacy. Do you think on the advocacy side, it was trending toward vote-by-mail before the pandemic just to increase involvement in general? Or is the pandemic what triggered this being a big issue right now?

CHARLANE OLIVER: Prior to coronavirus, our focus was more on voter registration and voter turnout. How do we get people more in the game? We were focused on repealing all the bad laws on the books in terms of voter ID, voter criminalization laws Tennessee tried to pass. We weren’t looking at vote-by-mail in terms of a way to increase voter turnout. But right now, the times we’re in, it’s calling for unprecedented measures and it’s impacting everyone, even our organization and how we do our work.

We’re having to work from home. People are having to cook more, spend more time with our families. People are operating their businesses in a different way. Why wouldn’t we look at our elections? We can’t do things the way we’ve always done them and expect the same results. It’s going to disproportionately turn people away where we’re already at the bottom (nationally) in terms of voter participation. It’s already going to make people scared of going to the polls amid this pandemic. So we’re trying to explore our options.

Because we are in a pandemic, use alternative measures to still give people a right to vote. Vote-by-mail is one of the safest ways to do that. We still need to offer opportunities to vote in person for those who can’t vote by mail, for those without internet who can’t download a ballot, or have language barriers. Those people still need to vote in person and we need to have those measures. But the more people who are staying home lessens the spread of the virus and gives us an opportunity to social distance.

TENNESSEE LOOKOUT: President Trump has sparked debate about vote-by-mail, worrying it could lead to more voter fraud. What do you say to that?

TEQUILA JOHNSON: I think at the core of that, this issue is being politicized when this isn’t about one party over the other. This is about people. As for us, we’re defending people so we’re always hitting the issues head on. We don’t have time to play partisan politics. We’re trying to protect people at a time when our community is most vulnerable. This is about making sure people have equitable access to the voting booth.