Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett visited the University of Memphis campus to speak to students about civic involvement and the importance of voting. During this visit, he spoke to his position on voting rights, in particular two Tennessee policies, even admitting the need for reform to the felon rights reinstatement process.
Voting rights and equal access to the right to vote are still not a reality for some Tennesseans because of state law. A new law requiring voters to show a state issued photo ID came into effect in 2012 and has faced resistance since then. Tennessee also has one of the most stringent processes in the country for felons wanting to reinstate their voting rights. These policies came from a Republican majority legislature, giving validity to the perception that the debate on modern voting rights divides lawmakers neatly along party lines. Those who support the polices argue that these laws protect the sanctity of voting and prevent anyone who should not be voting from doing so. Others argue that certain demographics, particularly poor people of color, are disenfranchised disproportionately because of these policies. Voter disenfranchisement and unequal access to the vote are troubling signs in a democracy since universal suffrage is one of the most important prerequisites to democratization. If this integral function of democracy were to erode, the democratic system of a state would certainly be in jeopardy. Although these policies vary from state to state and have no uniform national effect, one prominent party’s stringent support for these debatably undemocratic policies may be something of an early warning sign for the United States.
Tennessee’s secretary of state, Tre Hargett, visited the University of Memphis campus to give a brief talk encouraging student involvement in government and elections. He is a Republican and former minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives before being elected by his fellow legislators as Secretary of State following the Republican takeover of the state government in 2009. Secretary Hargett’s visit was a part of a voter registration program called GoVote TN that holds voter registration sessions around the state and encourages voting. Secretary Hargett’s office is also responsible for everything concerning voting in the state of Tennessee including enforcing the voter ID law and facilitating the reinstatement of felons’ voting rights (or not).
The first thing Secretary Hargett addressed was the voter ID law. He claimed its validity by making the often-used argument for policies such as these: that this will prevent living people from using dead people’s names to vote illegally. He claimed that this type of fraud is common, however the only evidence he offered was that the voting rolls listing all the voters in Tennessee had been allowed to build up with the names of deceased voters because the administration before him had failed to keep up with clearing the names of the deceased off the rolls. This stands out to me because not only did he attack the administration before him, who happened to be headed by Democrats, he also failed to support the claim that voter fraud, living people using dead people’s names to vote, actually takes place. The possibility existed due to the bureaucratic backlog, yet evidence people taking advantage of this oversight was lacking.
Secretary Hargett reaffirmed his office’s commitment to clearing the voter rolls of these names and to the voter ID policy. He seemed to be genuinely convinced these protective measures only improved the voting process instead of disenfranchising voters. In this opening disclaimer, Secretary Hargett did not address the more troubling, although less controversial, policy of felon disenfranchisement. In Tennessee, those convicted of felonies on or after May 18th, 1981 are automatically stripped of their right to vote. These rights may be reinstated if the individual is pardoned, or they are released from incarceration and supervision and all court restitution, child support, and court ordered costs are paid.4 These conditions being met, an individual still must either obtain a court order or a certificate of restoration filled out by the pardoning official, or the agent of the incarcerating authority and an agent of the courts.4 Only then can someone convicted of a felony register to vote. This process is not only cumbersome and expensive, the rules all change if the person was convicted between January 15th, 1973 and May 17th, 1981, and they change once again for anyone convicted before January 15th, 1973. Still, those convicted of murder, rape, treason, or voter fraud are never eligible to restore their voting rights (those rules change again if the conviction occurred after July 1st, 2006).4
These rules are complicated. Anyone unfamiliar with the rules or system would certainly have a difficult time navigating the process and may even be discouraged from pursuing their voting rights because of the hoops the state expects them to jump through. I questioned Secretary Hargett about this process and his answer somewhat surprised me. He explained that, before becoming secretary of state, he believed no felon should be allowed to restore their voting rights under any circumstances. However, since being exposed to the process first hand, he explained that he now realizes the need for reform and easier access to rights restoration. He did not mention a position on life disenfranchisement for certain felons or how this policy disproportionately effects people of color, still his willingness to recognize the need for reform came as a surprise. Secretary Hargett still has influence in the state legislature, once serving as minority leader for the Republican caucus. New legislation to create uniform rules for rights restoration and a more accessible process would be a significant step for the state of Tennessee.
Secretary Hargett’s discussion of these two voting rights policies exposed the possible future direction of voting policy in Tennessee. It seems that the voter ID laws are here to stay as long as Republicans maintain control of state government. There is a dedicated belief in the party of voter fraud and a strong, although seemingly unfounded, desire to prevent its taking place. The recognition from Secretary Hargett that the restoration process for felons is unnecessarily complex was promising. Although, particularly in the current political climate, I feel it would be difficult to get any legislation simplifying the process passed without a great deal of resistance. Also, there are not many people on either side of the aisle that see the voting rights of felons as an important political issue. In all likelihood, without a major push from the public, things will remain the same. This restriction of voting rights, especially since it disproportionately effects minority groups, is symptomatic of democratic erosion. However, since this is not national policy, it hardly spells the end of democracy in the United States. If other similar policies do become more widespread and restrictive, there may be good cause for concern.
Robinson, James A, and Daron Acemoglu. “2. Our Argument.” Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
I find the points made in this blog post very interesting, specifically the discussion of the ways in which Secretary of State Tre Hargett justified his promotion of Voter ID laws. As mentioned in this blog post, Voter ID laws limit voter participation by systematically disenfranchising people of color and people living in poverty, meaning these policies are undemocratic. However, Hargett is defending these undemocratic policies by explicitly saying that they will strengthen our democracy through the prevention of voter fraud. This use of democratic ideals as a defense of an undemocratic policy is troubling and reminiscent of the rhetoric used by politicians in other eroding democracies.
Additionally, I wholeheartedly agree that the restriction of voting rights and support of this restriction by prominent politicians is a problem for a democracy. However, I would argue that voter restrictions have been more the rule of American democracy than the exception, and therefore I find it hard to believe that this is a new warning sign for our democracy’s erosion. If we take voter disenfranchisement to be a warning sign of erosion, then our democracy has been, to varying extents, eroding since its inception. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that restrictive policies on voting rights have been leaving us vulnerable to democratic backsliding for our whole history. Certainly, I agree that they are cause for concern. However they are framed, voter restrictions exist in opposition to a strong democracy, and therefore it is vital that we work against their implementation.
Undoubtedly, debate on whether or voter not fraud actually poses a threat to American democracy has become a highly partisan issue in state politics. On the Republican side, legislators argue that the integrity of American democracy is at risk. For Democrats, this argument by Republicans is simply an excuse to disenfranchise those who would most likely vote for Democrats based on their demographics. A combination of polarized politics and disenfranchisement of a particular group may indicate democratic backsliding, but does it in this case?
In Tennessee, clearly, the state legislature has made the choice to be tough when it comes to voter registration. The fact that felons must go through such a long process in order to regain their voting rights is discouraging. However, this law is not new and it is not atypical. All but two states—Maine and Vermont—deny felons the right to vote until they go through some kind of process to regain that right. Does that make the disenfranchisement of felons okay? Not necessarily. But, because it is a traditional law, the disenfranchisement of felons does not stand out as an indicator of democratic backsliding. It does not appear to be a mechanism with which Republicans are taking advantage of the electoral system to win elections over Democrats, either. If Republicans were aiming to disenfranchise voters who had committed lesser crimes, then, perhaps, there would be an indication of democratic backsliding, but these kinds of laws—even in Tennessee where they are so tough—are a traditional part of American democracy.