By The Tennessee Tribune
Lawsuit Demands Timely Release of Public Records Necessary to Protect the Fundamental Right to Vote for Thousands of Tennesseans
Shelby County Tactics Follows Voter Suppression Efforts to Delay and Block Registration of Voters of Color in Missouri, Georgia, Ohio
MEMPHIS – One day before the start of early voting in Tennessee, the Tennessee Black Voter Project (TNBVP) announced they have filed a lawsuit against the Shelby County Election Commission (SCEC) to help protect the right to vote for thousands of predominantly Black voters. The SCEC’s statement that over half of voter registration forms received are invalid and its refusal to timely release public records raises concerns about whether it is wrongly invalidating thousands of voter registration forms TNBVP submitted during a historic statewide drive. There are also concerns about whether affected Tennesseans are being notified of their right to “cure”—or correct—deficient forms by or on Election Day so they can still vote a regular ballot in the upcoming election.
“With Tennessee already last in the nation in voter turnout, the last thing Shelby County needs is for its election officials to actively hinder—rather than help—Tennesseans to exercise their right to vote,” said Tequila Johnson, Statewide Manager of the Tennessee Black Voter Project. “We have already seen this kind of obstruction and voter suppression in other states as Election Day approaches, and we won’t allow it to happen here, too.”
TNBVP submitted over 36,000 voter registration applications to the SCEC. This was a huge uptick compared to voter registration applications received for previous midterm elections. However, the SCEC claims that an improbably high percentage of these voter registration forms are invalid. Despite multiple requests to substantiate their claims or offer remedies, the SCEC has rejected cooperation with TNBVP and refused timely access to public records that would enable TNBVP to begin a process to help affected registrants cure incomplete forms through Election Day.
This lawsuit comes one week after Georgia Secretary of State and Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp made headlines for stalling 53,000 voter applications from predominantly Black voters. Like actions in Georgia, Missouri and Ohio, Shelby County’s conduct threatens to prevent thousands of otherwise eligible voters of color from participating in elections.
The TNBVP, through counsel, is seeking a court order to permit inspection of information related to rejected and deficient voter registration applications. The TNBVP is entitled to these public records under the Tennessee Public Records Act.
With early voting beginning tomorrow, October 17, and Election Day just weeks away, TNBVP is concerned that Shelby County officials have wrongly invalidated forms or failed to educate voters on the process for exercising their legal right to correct an incomplete registration form on or by Election Day, as guaranteed by Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-2-109.
“I haven’t heard any updates on my voter registration form, whether I’ve been accepted or rejected,” said Stephen Penn, 50, a lifelong resident of Shelby County who says he registered almost two months ago. “I don’t know what the procedure is, but I provided my address and my phone number, so I feel like I should have been contacted by now. I’m trying to vote because my health care is on the line and I’m trying to have a voice to fix the issues that aren’t getting solved.”
The SCEC has been sued repeatedly in the past for early voting restrictions in communities of color, misleading ballot language, and voting tally inaccuracies.
“Tennessee voter participation is worse than nearly every state in the nation. We should applaud and encourage every effort to increase participation in our elections—especially a campaign that submitted registration forms for more than 36,000 new voters,” said Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner. “We owe every person in Shelby County, from those who registered for the first time in 1968 to those who registered for the first time in 2018, access to the ballot box. We are calling on election officials today to work with the Tennessee Black Voter Project and allied organizations to ensure that each and every affected registrant has the opportunity to validate their application and the right to vote.”
This article originally appeared in The Tennessee Tribune.