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Democracy Is Not Doing Well in Tennessee

Assuming you don't skip around (or just skip), you just read an item about the year 1868. Now we have a couple of stories that are actually from 2023, but might as well be from 1868.

To start, from Black Codes back in the Reconstruction Era, to birthing the Ku Klux Klan, to literacy tests, to voter ID laws, Tennessee has always been an "innovator" when it comes to keeping certain groups of people from voting. We don't want to give away the surprise ending and tell you who those certain groups might be, but we'll give you a hint: It's not white people.

In recent weeks, the state often described as the worst in the country for voting rights has been at it again. In Tennessee, voting is overseen by the Tennessee Election Division (TED), which answers to the state Secretary of State, currently Tré Hargett. We do not know why his nickname is Tré, since his real name is Gus Lusk Hargett III. Maybe it's because of that III, maybe it's because he used to run the Tennessee Regulatory Authority (TRA), maybe it's something else. If a Tennessee reader knows the answer, please do send it along. What we do know about Hargett is that he is a Trumper, a fan of Confederate icons like Nathan Bedford Forrest, and an anti-vaxxer. He's also no fan of voting rights; at the height of the pandemic he tried to put a stop to voting by mail, and was overruled by a Tennessee court. Hargett is also unelected, by the way; in Tennessee the sSoS is chosen by the legislature. So, his only constituents are the (mostly Republican) members of the legislature.

These things being the case, it's not a shocker that last month, presumably with the boss's approval, TED officials announced a new interpretation of state law. If someone in Tennessee is a convicted felon, it used to be the case that in order to restore their voting rights they had to undertake a paperwork-based process that was inefficient and poorly managed, but at least was doable. Now, convicted felons have to go through that process and then get approval from either a court or the governor before being allowed to vote.

Most of the 470,000 Tennesseans who are convicted felons are not friends with the governor, and do not have the money to hire a lawyer for a court proceeding. So, unless there is a new "interpretation" of the rules, perhaps at the business end of a court order, then they will largely be disenfranchised. And in case you are wondering, Tennessee is one of the states where convicted felons are disproportionately non-white. The full list of states like that is Tennessee, plus the other 49.

Meanwhile, in an apparent attempt to make martyrs out of molehills, the members of the Tennessee legislature are at it again when it comes to silencing their minority colleagues. State Rep. Justin Jones (D), who is a minority in both ways that term is used in U.S. politics, is one of the now-famous "Tennessee Three." During a debate over gun-related legislation, he had some strong opinions (though expressed in workplace tone of voice) on the subject. Rather than hearing what he had to say (or just waiting until his time had run out), the majority voted to silence him for the rest of the day. The underlying justification is that he was talking about things not in the bill in question, since he was mostly listing things that the legislature should be doing to help combat gun violence (as opposed to putting more armed cops in schools, which is what they are going to do).

And guess what? The rule used to shut Jones down was ostensibly only temporary, and adopted because the legislature is in special session right now and so can't afford to be wasting time. However, Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) liked what he saw (or, more accurately, what he didn't hear), so now he's talking about making those rules permanent.

We'd hate to sound conspiratorial, but if you squint just right (or you don't squint at all), it sure looks like Tennessee Republicans are doing everything in their power to keep Black and brown Tennesseans from having a voice in their own government. Or, maybe we're just crazy. After all, we once read an article on Critical Race Theory. And you know what that does to a person. (Answer: It makes them trans, as we understand it.) (Z)

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