With one week until the November 6 midterm election, buzz is growing around what is likely to be a historic
turnout and with it grows a national conversation
on voting rights. High profile cases of alleged voter suppression like that of Brian Kemp in Georgia
sit juxtaposed to stories of extreme voter empowerment like Oregon’s new automatic voter registration.
In Shelby County, the NAACP and Tennessee Black Voter Project won a suit on October 25 against the Shelby County Election Commission for improperly processing thousands of voter applications, many of which came from majority-Black neighborhoods.
In response to the ruling, the NAACP’s local and national leadership held a press conference at the organization’s Memphis branch on October 26 where Tennessee NAACP President Gloria Sweet-Love said the state has a long and still active history of voter suppression
. The ACLU agrees,
citing Tennessee’s restrictive voting laws including strict photo ID requirements, limited early voting, and a purging system in violation of the National Voter Registration Act.
The NAACP said local, state, and national chapters are leveraging the court system to ensure no voters are disenfranchised this election, but the best way to fight voter suppression is by empowering voters.
“We want to say if you make an effort, if you just meet us part of the way, we’ll turn the world over to make sure your voter registration is right and make sure your vote counts,” said Sweet-Love.
The organization has been working for months on new voter recruitment like their Power of 5
initiative. Sweet-Love said they’ve also worked to correct registration discrepancies, organize transportation to the polls,
and get criminal records expunged and voting rights restored.
Britney Thornton is a resident of Memphis’ Orange Mound neighborhood, the first community
built for and by African-Americans post-Civil War. As a member of the Urban League of Young Professionals, she’s also been recruiting voters, particularly at high schools including Orange Mound’s Melrose High.
Britney Thornton of JUICE Orange Mound recruits new and future voters at the old Melrose High revitalization celebration for a group ride to the Glenview Community Center early voting location. (Ziggy Mack)
Thornton is also the founder of JUICE Orange Mound, a resident-led community organization that held its first voter mobilization effort on October 27 — a Roll to the Poll group bike ride to the Glenview Community Center early voting location.
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Leaders including Thornton and the NAACP say the key to ensuring voters’ rights and fair elections in Memphis and beyond is combining national and grassroots efforts that include legal actions, education initiatives, and meeting people where they are with registration and mobilization efforts.
On October 25
The Case for Suppression in Shelby County
Chancellor JoeDae Jenkins ruled the Shelby County Election Commission suppressed votes by failing to give timely notice to thousands of rejected applicants so they could correct mistakes ahead of November 6. The NAACP said of the 35,000 applications
potentially affected, most were from majority-Black communities.
“The court validated those concerns and they are now directing the election commission to follow the law, respect the voters of this county, and process those applications consistent with [what] federal guidelines require,” said NAACP’s national president, Derrick Johnson, at the October 26 press conference.
State law also says voters should be given the chance to fix discrepancies at early voting locations and vote normally, but Jenkins ruled the commission had failed to consistently inform voters of this right. Shelby County Commissioner and NAACP member Tami Sawyer said she and her office have received numerous complaints from people being turned away from the polls, not informed of their rights, or made to use provisional ballots.
The voters arrive at Glenview Community Center as part of JUICE Orange Mound's Roll to Poll community initiative on Oct 27. (Ziggy Mack)
“That is voter suppression,” said Sweet-Love. “That is discrimination. And it’s those kinds of things that have energized us.”
“Our polling data tells us that African-Americans are participating this cycle because they feel disrespected,” said Johnson. “They’re taking action and they’re going to the polls.”
Thornton said she is seeing a similar trend in Orange Mound. She said voters are facing a lack of information on many candidates and are confused by the wording of three local referendums,
but they’re working to educate themselves and participate.
“I’ve never had an election pass where I’ve seen more confused people who are still actively engaged in the process,” she said.
Tennessee ranks dead last
in terms of voter turnout, but statewide numbers for the first day of early voting were nearly four times higher
than the 2014 midterm election.
Voting Made Personal
According to Thornton, voter suppression isn’t just about structural barriers. Failing to build positive voting experiences can also disenfranchise voters. If people have no previous relationship with voting or lack enough information on the process and candidates, they are less likely to vote. It might appear as apathy, but it’s actually a lack of familiarity and engagement. Community-centered voting events make people feel more comfortable and create positive associations with civic responsibility.
“We can’t say ‘Oh, people aren’t voting,’ but we can say, ‘Oh, I’m not building relationships with people who aren’t voting and motivating them to vote,'” said Thornton.
To energize Orange Mound voters, the JUICE Orange Mound Roll to the Poll event started at the old Melrose High School revitalization celebration at 843 Dallas Street. Ten riders enjoyed speakers, games, and music by the legendary Kirk Whalum before biking through Orange Mound to the polling site at 1141 South Barksdale Street. Explore Bike Share provided free rides and JUICE provided a tamale lunch after voting.
The Roll to the Poll riders pass a sign for the historic Melrose High reactivation initiative on their way to vote at the Glenview Community Center. (Ziggy Mack)
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In addition to existing and new voters, the ride included younger Melrose High students who will be eligible to vote by 2020 but lack exposure to the voting process.
“When you go in to vote, it’s this isolated experience where you navigate it yourself,” said Thornton. “There’s not a lot of fanfare. So it was cool for them to go see motivated voters in action,” she said of the younger teens.
JUICE plans to do at least one more Roll to the Poll for newly registered Melrose High students.
“This Roll to the Poll is one of the first ways for us of moving students from getting registered to actually getting them to the polls,” said Thornton.
Eighteen-year-old Shabria Brimmer signs up for a free Explore Bike Share ride to Glenview Community Center where she'll cast her first ever ballot. (Ziggy Mack)
Shabria Brimmer is a senior at Melrose High and a member of the student government who turned 18 and registered to vote in September. She joined the October 26 Roll to the Poll to cast her first ballot. She said students, faculty, and guests at her school often discuss the importance of voting. Brimmer, in turn, motivates others.
“I spread the word to do it because it’s very important unless you want the wrong person in office,” she said.
NAACP leaders say this sort of youth involvement is critical, and it’s growing.
“It is as energized as I’ve seen it in my memory,” said Johnson. “Young people are showing up. They’re knocking on doors. They’re asking to volunteer. They're having texting parties.”
Thornton said JUICE and the Urban League of Young Professionals work closely with youth because even if they can’t vote yet, they can influence elections.
“There’s that question of whose job is it to educate the voters,” said Thornton. “I want to see us be able to leverage the generations to reach each other.”
The high school students she works with are receptive to learning and excited to be involved in the political process, which Thornton said is part of a long legacy of activism and leadership in Orange Mound. Seniors in the neighborhood often identify Orange Mound and its churches as a critical part of Memphis’ civil rights movement, and its distinction as a historic African-American community makes it a benchmark for others.
“We’re a community that a lot of people look to really model what it looks like for a Black community to be at its best,” said Thornton. “I think it’s just our spirit. Civic engagement is just something we do.”