Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery and Secretary of State Tre Hargett have signed letters written by their Republican colleagues criticizing a Democrat-backed federal voting rights bill.

One letter, obtained by the Tennessee Journal, shows Slatery is joining 19 Republican attorneys general in a letter written by the Indiana attorney general and others contending the act “betrays several Constitutional deficiencies and alarming mandates that, if passed, would federalize state elections and impose burdensome costs and regulations on state and local officials.”

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery. (Photo: tn.gov)
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery. (Photo: tn.gov)

The other letter written by the Alabama secretary of state, also obtained by Tennessee Journal, calls the act “a dangerous overreach by the federal government” into state-run elections.

“Each state legislature should have the freedom and flexibility to determine practices that best meet the needs of their respective states. A one-size-fits-all approach mandated by Congress is not the solution to any of our problems,” the letter from Hargett and other secretaries of state says.

The letter contends the legislation, which passed the U.S. House along party lines last week, would violate “our” constitutional rights, hurt the “security and integrity of the elections process” and damage the ability of states to legislate and regulate changes.

Republican secretaries of state further claim the legislation, which faces a harder road to passage in the Senate, would “undermine” their work to provide “safe, accessible” voting options and “reverse years of progress.”

The letter signed by Slatery contends the federal act would “invert” the constitutional structure for holding elections, “commandeer state resources, confuse and muddle elections procedures, and erode faith in our elections and systems of governance.”

Slatery’s letter first criticizes the legislation by saying it will affect the selection of electors for the presidential and vice presidential election, allowing Congress to regulate those decisions rather than states. It points toward a Michigan statue, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, that leaves those tasks to the states.

Congressional approval of the Electoral College and the election of President Joe Biden was disrupted in January when pro-Trump protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an insurrection. Specifically, defining the method for selecting presidential electors means Congress can’t force states to allow voting by mail or curbside voting, the letter says.

A letter written by the Alabama Secretary of State and signed by Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett argues an expanded voting rights package would “undermine” their work and “reverse years of progress.”

The letter further condemns the legislation, saying mandates for mail-in voting, acceptance of late ballots, overriding of state voter identification laws and redistricting by unelected commissions “face severe constitutional hurdles.”

“Here, Congress is not acting as a check, but is instead overreaching by seizing the role of principal election regulator,” a constitutional violation, the letter contends.

Congressmen Jim Cooper, a Nashville Democrat, pointed out that Republican officials argued in court repeatedly during 2020 that Tennessee should not expand access to absentee voting amid a pandemic yet lost on several points.

“Tennesseans shouldn’t be subjected to the most suppressive voting laws in the U.S. We need a federal law to override them, just as the original Voting Rights Act was necessary to protect everyone, and particularly Black voters, in the era of Jim Crow,” Cooper said in a statement. “The For the People Act is the strongest voting rights bill before Congress in 20 years.”

Cooper said the legislation “unrigs” the state’s redistricting process so voters have more voice in choosing their representatives and restores voting rights to nearly half a million Tennesseans who have paid their debt to society, while making election more secure.

Former President Trump still contends the 2020 election was stolen from him through fraudulent voting, when he lost a handful of battleground states as vote counting stretched on days after the vote, mainly because mail-in ballots were counted last.

The letter claims the federal legislation would dismantle voter identification laws in 35 states by allowing a statement of identity instead of a “prior-issued, document-backed identification” to prove a voter’s ID.

It also attacks national automatic voter registration and Election Day registration as well as a proposal to stop election commissions from purging voters who haven’t participated in years.

In addition, the attorney generals’ letter attacks the idea of “independent” commissions to draw congressional districts in an effort to neutralize “political” gerrymandering, saying such a move would be “profoundly misguided.”

“Independent commissions do not somehow negate the need for interest balancing and tradeoffs – they merely avoid accountability for the enterprise,” the letter states. “At least when legislatures draw boundary lines voters may punish egregious behavior at the next election; not so with government-by-commission, which trades accountability for mythical expertise and disinterest.”

The attorneys general also pushed back against Democrats’ effort to undermine corporate participation in elections, which allowed corporations expanded free speech in the Supreme Court landmark case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. The ruling led to the creation of super political action committees and “dark money” in campaigns.

Rep. Vincent Dixie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, points out Tennessee is usually near the bottom nationally in voter turnout.

Rep. Vincent Dixie, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. (Photo: John Partipilo)

  This doesn't surprised me in Tennessee. It seems like that's what we do. We legislate by legalese. We legislate by lawsuits.   – Democratic House Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie on the GOP lawsuits

“Why are we so against people having the right to vote?” Dixie said Monday. 

He pointed toward the loss of voting rights for felons and the requirement to register to vote again once released from prison as hindrances to the voting process. 

“Things happen. We should do everything in our power to help people exercise their right to vote and make it easy for them to do so,” Dixie said. “Things like automatic voter registration. That should be a no-brainer.”

Hargett has done a “great job,” he said, of protecting the “integrity of the elections.” Thus, he was surprised somewhat by Hargett’s decision to sign on to the letter. But he hoped the secretary of state’s goal would be to register as many people as possible to vote.

The attorneys general lawsuit, nevertheless, threatens a lawsuit if Congress passes the bill.

The letter signed by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery and 19 other attorneys general attacks the idea of “independent” commissions to draw congressional districts in an effort to neutralize “political” gerrymandering. 

“That doesn’t surprise me in Tennessee. It seems like that’s what we do. We legislate by legalese. We legislate by lawsuits,” Dixie said.

The federal government is set to deliver Census results to the state in September for redrawing of congressional and legislative districts. Republican lawmakers have criticized the delay, saying it is part of Democrats’ effort to maintain a majority in Congress.

Dixie took exception to the attorneys general idea that voters should simply get rid of elected officials for gerrymandering districts.

“How can you possibly vote out the people who drew the lines when the people who drew the lines are the ones that control who you vote for? It’ like having the fox watch the henhouse,” he said.

Dixie noted one discrepancy in voting law, which prohibits felons from voting. He pointed out he has two prisons in his legislative district where prisoners are counted as part of the census but are not allowed to vote. “It makes no sense,” he said.

Democrats are sponsoring several bills in the 112th General Assembly, including one from Dixie that would automatically re-register felons once they fulfill their sentences.

Other legislation would allow college students to use their university-issued identification cards for voter ID in addition to absentee balloting without an excuse such as being out of town on Election Day.

Still others would delete the provision prohibiting helping someone with a mail-in ballot; allowing counties to set up ballot drop boxes outside election commission offices; allowing voters to register during early voting; and requiring election commissions to notify voters when they’re about to be purged from the system.

Republican Sen. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma withdrew her bill that would have eliminated early voting. It had little, if any, support in the Legislature, and she was unable to support her assertions of fraud it was designed to stop.

But Republican lawmakers are sponsoring other bills that could put a damper on voting.

  • House Bill 1239 by Rep. Susan Lynn of Mt. Juliet would authorize the state and county election commissions to fingerprint voters and to work with state agencies that maintain fingerprint databases.
  • Another by Lynn would require state and county election commissions to keep the names on their website of each voter who requests an absentee ballot and a link to the voter’s digital or electronic signature on the application.
  • House Bill 1251 by Republican Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison would prohibit a county election commission from transmitting an application for absentee voting unless the voter requests the ballot in writing. Sen. Frank Nicely, a Strawberry Plains Republican, is sponsoring all three of those in the Senate.

House Republicans continue to support legislation setting up a procedure to remove Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle because of her rulings that led increased absentee balloting during the 2020 election cycle. 

Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

State Rep. Tim Rudd, a Murfreesboro Republican, is sponsoring the bill to set up a legislative committee to study Hobbs’ decisions in an effort to bring about a two-thirds vote to remove her based on Article VI, Section 6 of the state Constitution. Nicely filed a Senate version of the resolution last week.

Rudd, who previously carried legislation for the Secretary of State’s Office designed to quell large voter registration drives that paid workers and created problematic applications, said he was not asked by Hargett’s office to sponsor the bill.

“It originated with me, and then I asked them for information, but they did not ask me to run it. … When I decided to run it, I did contact the Elections and Secretary of State’s Office and requested information,” Rudd said.

Rudd said he asked about Lyle’s decision to form the legislation. Lyle initially ruled that the state should allow absentee balloting for any qualified voter afraid of voting in-person because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Secretary of State’s Office contended its COVID-19 election plan would protect voters, and it argued expanded absentee balloting would be too costly and lead to voter fraud.

Just before the case was to be argued before the Tennessee Supreme Court, the Attorney General’s Office changed its mind and agreed that voters with underlying health factors and their caregivers should be allowed to vote absentee. The Supreme Court overruled the portion of Lyle’s decision allowing anyone afraid of the virus to cast an absentee ballot.

Featured photo: Anthony Eubanks,68, and wife Anna Eubanks, 68, were going to vote by but decided to vote in person on the first day of early voting. The couple, who have been married for 46 years, said they didn’t trust the mail so decided to risk voting In person at Nashville’s Howard School Office Building during the 2020 early voting period. (Photo: John Partipilo)