In Oct. 2020, a large group of people wait in line to early vote at Nashville’s Howard Building. (Photo: John Partipilo)
After a presidential election which saw record turnout and widespread disinformation, followed by a violent insurrection, one Tennessee state senator is proposing an end to early voting.
Republican state Sen. Janice Bowling, of Tullahoma, contends early voting creates opportunities for fraud—or, as she puts it, “mischief.” She introduced a bill last week that would abolish early voting, end the use of voting machines and require watermarked paper ballots hand-marked by voters.
“In-person early voting is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it’s led to mischief in many states,” she said in an interview.
She provided no evidence. Courts and election administrators have only found rare and isolated cases of fraud, nothing widespread enough to change the results of an election.
Two other lawmakers, Sen. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) and Rep. Susan Lynn (R-Mount Juliet), introduced a bill to fingerprint all voters. These are far from the only voting-related bills before the General Assembly, but they are among the most extreme.
“This is a simplification of the process,” Bowling continued. “[My constituents are] very concerned that the early vote plus the computer vote has given great opportunities for mischief.”
Opponents denounced the bills as blatant voter suppression.
In a statement provided to the Lookout, Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said Bowling’s bill would reduce turnout and make it harder to vote.
“Cutting early voting and eliminating voting machines will only lead to longer lines and fewer voters, hitting Black Tennesseans, working people, senior citizens, and people with disabilities the hardest,” Weinberg stated.
A record number of Tennesseans voted early, but the state still ranks near the bottom of the country in turnout. Weinberg said, “Senator Bowling’s misguided bill can only be seen as a clear effort to suppress the vote.”
Lisa Quigley, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Nashville Democrat, sees the bill similarly.
“The TN GOP is always coming up with new ways to suppress voters,” Quigley wrote on Twitter. With a facepalm emoji, she continued: “So predictable. Just as early & absentee voting has become popular, we should, of course, ABOLISH it.”
(My constituents) are very concerned that the early vote plus the computer vote has given great opportunities for mischief.
– Sen. Janice Bowling
Consequences of disinformation
The pandemic caused many states—led by both Republicans and Democrats—to expand early and mail-in voting in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Former President Donald Trump attempted to sow distrust in these voting methods by spreading debunked conspiracy theories about fraud.
Many of his supporters were convinced.
Consequently, data showed that Democrats voted early or by mail at much higher rates than Republicans, who more often voted on Election Day.
Along with the increased turnout came victories in the presidential election for Democrat Joe Biden and Democrats in the U.S. Senate. Republicans narrowed the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives, but didn’t win the majority.
A federal commission of cybersecurity experts and election administrators found that “the Nov. 3rd election was the most secure in American history,” but Trump continued to claim it was stolen.
That disinformation led to a violent insurrection on his behalf at the U.S. Capitol last month.
“Where there is the perception, there is a problem”
Many who believe conspiracy theories are Bowling’s and Lynn’s constituents.
They’ve raised those concerns, and they say they’re representing their voices. Just the perception of fraud, even if it’s demonstrably false, is still an issue, Bowling said.
“I think where there is the perception, there is a problem,” Bowling said. Eliminating early voting would “eliminate the perception.”
But she does have doubts of her own about election security—even though she says she’s not a conspiracy theorist. She thinks voting machines are complicated and hackable, and it would be much more simple if we went back to all-paper voting.
“Once anything gets on any kind of electronic system, it can be hacked into,” she said. She doesn’t consider herself a cybersecurity expert; she can hardly work her own computer. “I feel lucky when I can turn it on and turn it off.”
She hasn’t attempted to convince her constituents that the claims of fraud were false. They’re adults entitled to their own beliefs, she said.
“That’s not my responsibility to do that,” she said. “That’s why I’m bringing forth this legislation—to assuage those concerns.”
“It’s about preserving their own power”
For what it’s worth, the sponsors say these aren’t attempts at suppression.
In fact, Bowling believes her bill will increase turnout, by winning voters’ trust in the system.
“This is certainly not anything to suppress the vote,” she said. “That is the exact opposite of my intent. My intent is to make people confident . . . We want everyone to know their vote does matter.”
She said she does not support same-day registration, which is a Democratic priority, but she would entertain making Election Day a holiday.
Similarly, Lynn said fingerprinting isn’t a big hurdle, and it would add security.
“Oh golly, there’s tons of evidence” of fraud, Lynn said in an interview. “The law is meant to deter, protect, punish. What a great deterrent to fraud.”
“Anything that can provide security and confidence for the voters seems like a worthwhile thing to examine,” Lynn said.
Gun reform activist Kristi Cornett does not see it that way. Writing on Twitter, Cornett contrasted these bills to regulate voting with the Republican effort to deregulate guns. (Gov. Bill Lee said this month he wants to allow Tennesseans to carry guns without a permit. Supporters of gun deregulation call it “Constitutional carry.”)
“They can’t say it’s about Constitutional freedom,” said Cornett, who is active in the Tennessee Democratic Party. “It’s about preserving their own power.”
Other voting bills
There are a handful of bills that would make voting easier, too.
Most of those are sponsored by Democrats from Nashville and Memphis. Few think these bills to expand voting rights have much of a shot in the General Assembly, where both chambers are controlled by Republican supermajorities.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) wants to end partisan gerrymandering. He also sponsored a bill requiring the secretary of state to be elected statewide, rather than elected by members of the legislature.
Rep. London Lamar (D-Memphis) sponsored a bill requiring five days of early voting on three big university campuses. Sen. Sara Kyle, another Memphis Democrat, is sponsoring one that would allow college students to prove their eligibility to vote with their student ID.
And Sen. Brenda Gilmore of Nashville is sponsoring a handful of bills that aim to address criminal and racial justice while making more people eligible to vote.
One of Gilmore’s bills would create a polling place in Nashville jails; another would remove the requirement that voters be up-to-date on child support payments.
“I don’t think you can live through the last four months and not realize that the quality of our democracy is very much under threat,” Yarbro said in an interview.
He continued: “Most of us as Americans take democratic institutions for granted. And we don’t think of them as policy issues that are going to be debated. But the policy surrounding democracy might be one of the most important issues for the country for the next generation.”
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