Voter suppression tactics keep Tennessee at bottom of states for voting

Early voter Lanna Williams, wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, waits in line to vote with others at the Howard School in Nashville. Apparel with slogans not identified with a particular candidate or political party are permitted while voting. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Early voter Lanna Williams, wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, waits in line to vote with others at the Howard School in Nashville. Apparel with slogans not identified with a particular candidate or political party are permitted while voting. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee hasn’t experienced widespread voter intimidation but voter suppression tactics are rampant, said a Nashville voting rights advocate and congressional staffer.

Lisa Quigley, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, said there have been no reports of voter intimidation during early voting in Tennessee, but suppressive state voting laws play a key role in Tennessee’s habitually low voter turnout.

Fear of voter intimidation marks election

In this year’s polarized political climate, reports of voter intimidation nationwide have voting-rights and civil rights advocates fearing that violence will erupt around election day at polling stations. Only six states disallow firearms at polling stations. Tennessee isn’t one of them. 

“There’s a very real threat of voter intimidation, especially in battleground states,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst for the Intelligence Project for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). 

Voting-rights advocates asked elected officials and law enforcement to recognize potential threats, especially against vulnerable communities, and to send out a clear message that harassment will not be tolerated. 

In Tennessee, a coalition including the ACLU of Tennessee, the NAACP, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and Northern Mississippi, the Tennessee Equality Project and the American Muslim Advisory Council sent a letter to Gov. Bill Lee asking him to publicly state voter intimidation is a crime.

Although reports of voter intimidation may turn away some potential voters on Election Day, voter-rights advocates said “voting is still safe for most people,” according to Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for voting rights at SPLC.

Voter-rights advocates asked citizens to document any voter intimidation on Election Day and to not engage aggressors. Instead, report the incident to the on-site poll manager or call 866-OUR-VOTE. 

“It’s one of the hardest states to vote in the country,” said Quigley.  

Tennessee has traditionally had some of the lowest voter-turnout numbers nationwide. In 2014, Tennessee ranked as one of the lowest participation states with 29.1%, according to PBS.org

With such low voter turnout, even if voting increases this year, Tennessee may still trail far behind other states. 

“We may do really well for us this time, which is great, but it’s going to take until all the votes are counted to see how we stack up against other states,” Quigley said. 

The legal suppression of votes is still a problem in the state, meaning any voter intimidation  would be the cherry on top stopping Tennessee citizens from voting, she added.

While other states created drive-through voting stations and drop boxes, Tennessee officials have only recently allowed citizens to drop off stamped absentee or by-mail ballots at one post office per county, which is “inconvenient for most people, ” said Quigley.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett opposed drop boxes due to fears of fraud. Tennessee officials also considered COVID-19 not a valid enough excuse to allow no-excuse absentee voting and  Gov. Bill Lee recently signed a law that made it possible to strip Tennessee protesters of their right to vote

Recent changes to voting procedures that have come through lawsuits and challenges have made the process easier. 

“It just makes no sense and it sort of works against the people that you’re there to serve because you make it less convenient to hear their voice in the future,” said Quigley, of Tennessee’s strict voting laws.

By-mail ballots or absentee ballots have to be turned in to the designated USPS post office in each county by 3 P.M. on Election Day.

“Don’t put it in the mail on Election Day,” said Quigley, adding that ballots are not guaranteed to arrive in time.