Editor’s Column: Slatery and Hargett protest too much about voting rights act

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett testifies before the U.S. Senate Rules Committee on Absentee Voting. (Screenshot of Senate Rules Committee.)
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett testifies before the U.S. Senate Rules Committee on Absentee Voting in July 2020. (Screenshot of Senate Rules Committee.)

Tuesday, reporter Sam Stockard reported Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Attorney General Herbert Slatery have both joined their peers in signing letters that announce their disapproval of the “For the People” Act, a voting rights package that passed in the U.S. House March 4. 

The package, which passed along party lines — 220 Democrats voting ‘aye’ and 210 Republicans voting ‘nay’ — includes items intended to make voting easier, such as same day voter registration, the ability to register to vote online and automatic voter registration for Americans over the age of 18. It makes the purging of voters from voter rolls more difficult, prohibits interference in voter registration and adds transparency to campaign finance issues.

It also stipulates states must provide secured drop boxes in which absentee ballots can be deposited during federal elections and includes a provision for independent redistricting panels. The latter lessens the almost certain gerrymandering of districts, a practice that has been common under both Republican and Democratic majorities. 

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

Slatery is part of a group led by Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita and including Texas AG Ken Paxton. Paxton filed a lawsuit in early December challenging the presidential election results in four battleground states, asserting voter fraud, and Slatery joined the suit on behalf of Tennesseans. The current AG letter protested that the “For the People” Act would “confuse and muddle elections procedures.”

The AGs go on to say “it is difficult to imagine a legislative proposal more threatening to election integrity and voter confidence” and argue that automatic voter registration “would provide too many opportunities for non-citizens and others ineligible to vote” to cast fraudulent ballots. 

Hargett signed on to a letter drafted by Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill. The letter reads, in part, that the voting rights expansion would “blatantly undermine the extensive work we, as election officials, have completed in order to provide safe, accessible voting options for our constituencies.” It further calls the bill “dangerous overreach by the federal government.” 

Boy, coming from Slatery and Hargett, these charges are a real knee-slapper. 

Bear in mind Hargett told a U.S. Senate panel in July — with a straight face — that a cat registered to vote in Georgia, proving the ease of voter fraud. 

The conversation about the civic-minded feline came up during Hargett’s testimony on why fewer Tennesseans should have the opportunity to vote by absentee ballot during the 2020 pandemic election: fear of standing in long lines and potentially being exposed to COVID-19 wasn’t a sufficient reason to vote by absentee ballot. 

Hargett, who testified before a U.S. Senate panel in July that a cat registered to vote in Georgia, now says a federal effort to expand voting rights and increase ease of voting, is dangerous.

Slatery and Hargett were at the center of a raft of lawsuits filed last year by plaintiffs seeking ease of voting rights, with Hargett often being personally named in suits against the State of Tennessee and Slatery handling the defense.

  • In May 2020, The Equity Alliance, a Nashville-based nonprofit group, joined the A. Phillip Randolph Institute and the NAACP in a case suing the state to petition for excuse-free mail in-voting. Tennessee remained one of only five states not permitting excuse-free voting during the November general election due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • An August 2020 suit filed in federal court over a law making it a felony to provide a voter with an absentee ballot request form named Hargett and administrator of elections Mark Goins.

The fallout from the suits continues. Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle, who ruled in a suit filed by sick voters and their family members that voters with fears of catching COVID-19 could ask for an absentee ballot, was targeted for ouster by a Republican legislator. 

And on Thursday, the Washington Post reported on legislation in states across the country by Republican lawmakers to suppress voter turnout. Tennessee, the story said, is “among the states considering stiff new restrictions even though it is a deeply red state where no one contested the results last year.” The story cites a bill by Tullahoma Sen. Janice Bowling that would abolish early voting. (Although the bill was progressing through the Senate, Bowling pulled it from consideration.) 

I like a righteous fight as much as the next person, but for Slatery and Hargett, the architects of voter suppression in Tennessee to cry foul about a federal effort to get more people voting when we rank 48th in the nation in voter turnout? 

Spare me. To paraphrase a famous line from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the gentlemen protest too much, methinks.