The Tennessee Conservative [By Paula Gomes] –
The Tennessee Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued an interim memorandum this week with guidance for overcoming what the committee says are “barriers” to voting within the state.
Among their recommendations are “expanding access to absentee voting, increasing the availability of polling place locations, and evaluating voting procedures to identify and eliminate any disparate impact on protected groups to guarantee the opportunity for all Tennesseans to engage in the political process.”
The committee hosted a series of web briefings this year, from which they gathered testimony as the basis for the memorandum which can be sent to the Tennessee General Assembly and Governor Bill Lee.
Committee Chair Shaka Mitchell said that barriers to voting became more pronounced during the pandemic in 2020, despite polling places remaining open during voting that year. In the memo, the committee stated that Tennessee “may be a more restrictive voting state than some other states.”
They pointed to the state’s voter registration laws which require Tennessee residents to register to vote at least 30 days prior to the voting period, comparing the state with others that have shorter windows or allow same-day voter registration. The committee also noted Tennessee’s “strict voter identification requirement” – only three other states are “more restrictive.”
Requiring photo ID at the polls instead of only a signature affirming that the named registered voter is present ensures a level of election integrity missing from many states in the U.S. In Tennessee, anyone not able to present ID at the time of voting must present identification to election offices within 2 days for the vote to be made official.
Hedy Weinberg, Director of the ACLU in Tennessee, says that requiring voter ID “has a disproportionate impact on Tennessee’s Black residents” because “up to 25% of Black Americans lack government issued identification compared to only 8% of white Americans.”
Debby Gould, President of League of Women Voters of Tennessee noted that requiring non-drivers to get a photo ID processed at the DMV is problematic as 31 counties lack a DMV center.
The memo also took issue with the state’s laws regarding the restoration of voting rights after serving prison time for a felony calling it an obstacle on voting-aged residents that impact registration and turnout.
After a sentence is served, Tennessee does not automatically restore voting rights. Tennessee is one of only a few states that requires former felons to repay all legal financial obligations before voting and is the only state that requires convicted felons to pay any outstanding child support payments.
Absentee ballot law also came under fire as Tennessee requires voters to have an “excuse” for obtaining an absentee ballot and those ballots must be returned by mail and received by the close of polls on Election Day. In other states, voters are allowed to hand-deliver ballots to election offices and polling places that provide “secure ballot boxes.”
Secretary of State Tre Hargett has refuted some of the details in the memo, pointing out that polling places were not closed in November 2020 due to the pandemic, and that Tennessee’s early voting period starts 20 days before Election Day.
“Although the committee is making recommendations regarding staffing, hours, voting locations, and absentee by-mail voting, the memo has no evidence or examples of individuals who have been unable to vote under existing law regarding these areas,” Hargett said. “Polls close at 7 p.m. Central or 8 p.m. Eastern, unless someone is in line to vote at the time the poll closes. If a person was timely in line that person is allowed to vote.”
The committee will have a meeting open to the public on December 6th, 2022 at 12PM Central.
Interested individuals may register to attend via zoom or phone call. There will be an open period at the end of the meeting for members of the public to make comments.
The committee issues its final guidance in 2023.
About the Author: Paula Gomes is a Tennessee resident and reporter for The Tennessee Conservative. You can reach Paula at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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