On Nov. 3, history will be made. Our nation’s 59th presidential election will take place amidst widespread national instability. Mass social unrest, a worldwide pandemic and the Supreme Court’s conservative majority are all on the ballot this November. Every single vote matters. With the election quickly approaching, I thought it would be a good time to address voter suppression, specifically its modernization in Tennessee.
On Aug. 22, Tennessee governor Bill Lee adopted legislation, titled House Bill 8005, to increase penalties for protesters that may result in the removal of their voting rights. The bill classifies camping overnight on state property, a common method of protesting, as a Class E felony punishable by one to six years in prison, instead of a misdemeanor. As designated felons, the protestors would not have the right to vote in Tennessee.
Governor Lee signed the bill in reaction to the surge of protesting in Nashville this summer when participants demanded a meeting with him to discuss racial inequality. The organizers of the protests requested meetings with the governor for two months, yet he never responded. Instead, he chose to sign a bill that undermines the activists’ rights, ignoring systemic issues of racial injustice and police brutality in Tennessee and actively attempting to suppress the vote of those directly affected by such injustices.
Let’s be completely clear: House Bill 8005 is a blatant attempt at voter suppression. Protesters in Nashville may be stripped of their right to vote simply for exercising their right to free speech and their right to petition. This is not what our constitution stands for, nor is it what our democracy stands for. In fact, the First Amendment of our constitution states in no uncertain terms that people must have the right to peacefully assemble, exercise free speech, and petition the Government. Each of these are essential freedoms that our nation was built upon, yet they’re currently being blatantly ignored by Governor Bill Lee.
To my politically active Vanderbilt peers, House Bill 8005 puts us all at risk of losing our voting rights when protesting, and specifically camping, here in Tennessee. Every student who intends to exercise their right to protest in this state must understand the weight of Governor Lee’s decision- the possibility of losing one’s voting rights. This weight is especially prominent for students of color for whom the justice system has failed time and time again.
Voter suppression is yet another example of injustice that disproportionately affects people of color; it cannot be discussed without addressing its inherent connection to racial injustice. Voter suppression is a tool used widely by historically white Republican bodies to keep people of color, specifically Black people, from voting.
The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibits states from excluding voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Although most history textbooks teach us to interpret the Fifteenth Amendment as the right to vote for all men, it really only certified the right to vote for all white men. In an effort to maintain the widespread system of white supremacy, white men and women actively got to work suppressing the Black vote. Black people endured extreme voter intimidation, poll taxes, literacy tests and other forms of voter suppression if they ever tried to vote. Furthermore, Black women were entirely excluded from the women’s suffrage movement and were generally erased from conversations about voting rights. Voter suppression also escalated to violent acts against Black people, specifically Black men, who were repeatedly lynched for trying to vote. (Editor’s Note: The photo attached to this news story contains graphic content.)
In addition to its inability to secure the Black man’s right to vote, the 15th amendment also disenfranchised felons, incentivizing those in power to disproportionately jail people of color and suppress the Black vote. Thus, racially charged mass incarceration was born, penalizing, imprisoning and disenfranchising Black people for simple “transgressions” like crossing the street not in a crosswalk. Also, Tennessee waited 127 years to ratify the 15th amendment in 1997. Let’s pause to absorb this fact. Tennessee did not ratify the amendment allowing people of color to vote until 1997, only 23 years ago.
Mass education and awareness is the key to reducing voter suppression. People commonly hold the idea that people who don’t vote must be lazy. In reality, there are legislators actively attempting to minimize voter turnout through ID laws, felon disenfranchisement, voter intimidation and further unjust methods. The first step to fighting these legislators is mass education of the people to insure that those in power cannot rig the system to remain in power. Staying aware of proposed legislation concerning disenfranchisement or ID laws is incredibly important to protect your vote. Voting rights are human rights─it’s high time that we treat them as such.
To bring this back to Vanderbilt, I cannot stress enough the importance of staying educated on the legislation Governor Lee proposes in the future. While Vanderbilt can feel like its own separate entity, our campus is in a state that is run by a governor who has consistently chosen to maintain an oppressive system. While not every student is politically active at Vanderbilt, those who are must stay informed and help educate their less politically inclined peers. Every student’s rights are at play here.
If you or someone you know experiences voter intimidation or suppression in any form, there are three ways you can report it: contact your state election office, contact the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice or use the election complaint report online form. All of these are ways to report violations of your civil rights.
We are now less than two weeks away from election day. Any voter suppression can have drastic effects on elections, especially in a presidential election of such pressing importance. When elections come down to a small number of votes in only a couple of states, voter suppression has the potential to alter the outcome of an election. Stay vigilant, raise awareness to help peers fight voter suppression and most importantly, stay safe.