This is in response to Senator Gardenhire’s irresponsible and ridiculous oped that stated it’s easy to vote in Tennessee.
When I was a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, I requested my absentee ballot to vote in the presidential election. I was registered to vote in Memphis but was attending school in Knoxville so surely, I thought, this was going to be the easiest way for me to cast my ballot.
Weeks went by and I still hadn’t received my ballot. I began reaching out to my professors to let them know that I would be missing class on Election Day because I had to vote in person.
I drove six hours to Shelby County and showed them my student ID, only to be told, “Sorry, that’s not a valid ID. Do you have something else?” I showed my driver’s license. “Oh, you’ll need to vote on a provisional ballot because of where you’re registered.” I cast my ballot on a provisional ballot and drove back to Knoxville the next day to resume classes. Only now do I know that provisional ballots cast in the incorrect precinct do not count.
According to a study conducted by Northern Illinois University, Tennessee ranks 48th in the country when it comes to ease of voting. Why is that the case? Since the onset of Tennessee’s unnecessarily restrictive photo identification law, regulations on voter registration, and tightening of excuse-only absentee voting by mail, we continue to see voters struggle to access our electoral process. As a result, Tennessee has experienced a decrease in voter turnout in some of the most populous portions of the state.
Let’s take a look at Shelby County, the most populous (and Black) county in Tennessee. In 2008, Tennessee did not have a photo identification law. That year Shelby County residents cast 399,208 votes in the November presidential election. Fast forward to 2016, when a photo identification requirement was enforced, and Shelby County dropped to 344,731 votes cast. Then in 2020, Shelby County cast 384,280 votes in November. In a 12-year span, and with significant population growth, Shelby County saw a decline of 14,928 in voter turnout.
The bottom line is that Shelby County’s population has gone up and voter registrations have gone up in relation to the population, but the percentage of voters turning out has decreased.
Communities of color, urban communities and rural communities
What we see is that as restrictive voting laws have been passed, Tennessee’s communities of color, urban communities and some rural communities have actually experienced a decrease in turnout. When barriers are placed in front of voting, it chills turnout and disenfranchises voters. The only way to be truly democratic and American is to expand access to voting. But that is not what is happening in Tennessee.
Instead, people in power are building false narratives to create a nonexistent link between election accessibility and election security. We can have safe and accessible elections that are secure. These are not mutually exclusive concepts.
We can expand access by adding college IDs to the list of acceptable identification. We can expand access by adding same-day voter registration. We can expand access by giving every eligible voter the option to vote by mail. But first, we must reject the false reality that Gardenhire is selling about our elections in Tennessee.
To truly build a strong voting electorate and strengthen our democracy, our leaders should be expanding the franchise of voting to every eligible voter.
To do so, visit and support Organize Tennessee, at organizetennessee.org.