Voter Suppression IS Voter Suppression
By Terri Lee Freeman, National Civil Rights Museum
President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 with the intent of eliminating the legal barriers imposed at the state and local levels to prevent African Americans from exercising their legal right to vote as stated in the 15th Amendment. That amendment was ratified in 1870 and it guaranteed voting rights to all men regardless of race. It’s important to note that women were not afforded the right to vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Ironically, Tennessee was the vote that made passage of the 19th Amendment possible! In spite of that amendment, some states, particularly those in the South, instituted ridiculous requirements and tests, and even taxes, to prevent Blacks from voting. Thus, the need for the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Fast forward to 2019. Fifty-four years later, Tennessee legislators are trying to make it more difficult for nonprofit organizations and others to sponsor voter registration drives. The National Civil Rights Museum sees voting and voting rights as critical to leveling the field for the have and have nots, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference or social economic status. And, vital to continuing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. Tennessee ranks 45th in voter registration in the nation. Given that statistic, why in the world would Tennessee legislators want to, not only limit registration efforts, but potentially criminalize them? As opposed to the state working in partnership with nonprofit organizations to increase the number of individuals exercising their civic duty, it seems they seek to alienate them. Call it what you will, but plain and simply it’s voter suppression, an age-old tactic used to limit the participation of African Americans and other marginalized populations, in the political process.
Community organizations have been at the forefront of voter registration for decades. During the civil rights movement, CORE (Congress on Racial Equality), SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) led the Freedom Summer movement. Most notably, the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project was a crusade to register as many African American voters in Mississippi as possible. It was during that crusade that volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were viciously murdered by white supremacists happily affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. Their goal was clear. Disrupt the campaign and intimidate and suppress voter registration of Black voters.
Herein lies the irony. The very state that believed it was important for women to have the right to vote in 1920 is now proposing to limit the availability of voter registration drives. In a state that ranks 49th in voter participation and 45th in voter registration it seems the state would consider incentives for organizations that successfully register voters instead of proposing punitive measures. While at least 15 other states and the District of Columbia have made the move toward automatic voter registration, it seems Tennessee is interested in moving farther away from ensuring that all citizens can easily register to exercise their right. So, we scream the question again, "Where do we go from here?"