Blue Dots in a Sea of Red: Voter Suppression in Tennessee

A Morgantown voter walks out after voting in the May 10, 2016, primary election. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

By some estimates, Tennessee is ranked last in the country for voter turnout.

Ahead of the 2016 election, a study from the Pew Charitable Trusts showed that in the eight previous years, the state had some of the lowest rates in the country, hitting an all-time low in 2014 with just 29 percent of registered voters actually casting a ballot.

Traditionally, more voters turn out in years when a presidential candidate is on the ballot, and that was true in Tennessee in 2016 – when statewide statics show nearly 62 percent of voters hit the polls.

But in another midterm election year, will the state continue to be ranked near last for turnout?

I’d venture to say yes – not because my state struggles with voter apathy more than any other, but because Tennessee struggles with multiple forms of legal and cultural voter suppression keeping Tennesseans from the polls.

Compared to other states in the south and Appalachia, registering to vote in Tennessee is relatively easy. When I moved to Knoxville in August of 2018, I registered in under five minutes from my cell phone. This was a significantly easier process than what I’d previously encountered living in New Orleans. There, registering required filling out a three-page form online, printing it, signing it and mailing it to the Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters.

On Election Day, while it can vary from county to county, polling locations are typically open from 6 a.m. – 8 p.m. and that’s after a 15-day early voting period during which voters can cast ballots at their county election commission office, a satellite office or vote by mail.

But in Shelby County earlier this year, it wasn’t so easy.

Shelby County, the largest in Tennessee, is the home of Memphis, Graceland and the largest population of African-Americans in the state. For the first five days of early voting in the county’s local election and statewide primary this year, one polling location opened in a predominantly white area. Later, three more early voting locations opened in predominantly white suburbs, leading Democrats to cry foul, arguing the suppression of black votes.

And while registering may be an easier process in Tennessee than in other states, voters here face strict voter ID laws. Tennessee voters must present a government issued photo ID, which can include a driver’s license, military ID, passport, or handgun carry permit. But without one, many voters find they may have easily registered, yet still remain unable to cast their ballot when they show up to vote.

Culturally, Tennessee also faces complicated voter suppression issues.

I grew up in a progressive family in North Alabama in the 1990s, in the midst of the Republican Party’s attempt to lay claim to every Southern state. To my family, politicians were rich crooks that didn’t care about our jobs at the plant. But we voted. Despite feeling like specks of blue in a sea of red, I was always taught to vote no matter the outcome, while simultaneously holding onto a belief that my vote wasn’t making a difference.

That same narrative of hopelessness continues to be perpetuated by the national media who cover “red states” and “blue states” as if the outcome of elections has already been decided.

In a New York Times op-ed, Charles Peters writes:

“It is not going to be easy for liberals to win back red states like West Virginia. Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and Donald Trump have been too successful in encouraging ugly feelings like the senseless hatred of Barack Obama.”

While the West Virginia Peters describes historically voted much more progressively than East Tennessee, Peters’ frustration is rooted in media representations of the Appalachian and southern poor. When the news, polls and media tell Democrats they live in a “red state,” and in turn tell Republicans they live in a “blue state,” people vote less.

To disrupt the partisan hold on southern and Appalachian states—and states in the northeast and Rust Belt, for that matter—we have to disrupt the “blue state” versus “red state” narrative. This implied helplessness is a learned form of cultural voter suppression that encourages progressives not to cast their ballots, stemming from a long history of treating the south as a monolith.

The south and Appalachia, both of which are used to define Tennessee, are only political monocultures if we continue to use language of predetermination to discuss regional politics.

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