TULSA, OK – JUNE 19: A man displays a shirt celebrating the freedom of enslaved Black people during the Juneteenth celebration in the Greenwood District on June 19, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when a Union general read orders in Galveston, Texas stating all enslaved people in Texas were free according to federal law. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
Throughout months of campaign work, Kathy Chambers had never seen a single message pop up through the “contact us” page on the website for the Yes on 3 campaign — the bipartisan effort to urge voters to approve a constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery in Tennessee forever.
But at 8:31 am on Election Day, Chambers — the campaign manager — got an urgent message from Cannon County.
“I am a resident of Cannon County. There is incorrect information posted inside the ballot box,” the message said. “Is there a way to report this and get it taken down or changed in the ballot boxes in Cannon Tennessee.”
The voter included a screenshot of a sign posted inside the voting booth, directly above the machine and clearly visible to anyone who entered to cast their ballot. It included a curious summary of Amendment 3 — a “3rd grade run-down,” the printed sign said.
“Slavery is illegal,” the summary said. “Would you like to reword that prohibition in the state constitution?”
A plain reading of the message says that a vote for Amendment 3 would be a vote to make slavery legal again, when the opposite is true: Amendment 3, which passed by an 80% – 20% margin statewide, will instead add these words to the Tennessee Constitution: “Slave and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited.”
Tennessee was one of four states this year in which voters by large margins chose to eject lingering language in state constitutions allowing for slavery and involuntary servitude as punishments for crimes. Like Tennessee, voters in Alabama, Oregon and Vermont voted in favor of anti-slavery measures in large numbers.
Cannon County’s results, however, were markedly different. The Amendment passed by a 66% to 34% margin – the highest percentage of “no” votes of any of Tennessee’s 95 counties.
“We were very intrigued looking at those results,” Chambers said. “It made us question whether the people of Cannon County thought they were voting one way, but ended up voting the opposite.”
After talking to the Cannon County voter who contacted her on Election Day, Chambers immediately contacted a campaign attorney. The Secretary of State’s office was alerted by about 9 a.m. and immediately ordered Cannon County election officials to take down the signs, a spokesperson said.
An apologetic Cannon County election administrator told the Lookout he had made a mistake.
Matt Teply, the election administrator, said it was an effort to aide election workers bombarded with questions about the amendments during early voting.
Yet a post on the Commission’s Facebook page containing the same “3rd grade run-down” was posted October 18 – the day before early voting began – according to Chambers, who said she saw the post there on Election Day. That post has since been removed, but an identical post, dated Nov. 7, still remains on the Commission’s Facebook page.
The posts appear to violate state law, which requires the Tennessee Attorney General to provide summaries of all proposed constitutional amendments.
“These summaries appear on each ballot, as well as the sample ballots published and posted by the county election commission,” said Julia Bruck, the spokesperson for the Tennessee Secretary of State. “State law does not provide for any other summaries.
“Why Cannon County drafted something beyond what the attorney general provided is a question for Cannon County,” she said. “When distributing these summaries, our office instructed county election officials to remind their poll officials that the ballot speaks for itself.”
Bruck said her office had received no other complaints.
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