Fresh from victory after ballot access fight, organizers in Tennessee energize black voters
Black voters in Tennessee cast their ballots and held a celebration of their right to vote at a block party outside of Nashville on Saturday, just two days after a major victory assured their access to the polls.
“Democracy works when everybody gets to participate,” Charlane Oliver, president of the voting rights group Equity Alliance, told a crowd of about 60 people who had gathered, despite a spattering of rain, outside a community center in Antioch, Tennessee.
A short walk from the party put on by the Equity Alliance, voters went to polling stations at a local library, while a band played and a local vendor served food. Planned Parenthood and representatives from civic groups talked to voters and handed out candy, while children in Halloween costumes played in a bounce house.
The event, intended to get Tennesseeans inspired and excited about the vote, also served as a celebration of sorts.
On Thursday, Chancellor JoeDae Jenkins ordered the Shelby County Election Commission to allow people with incomplete voter registration applications — including missing addresses or illegible handwriting — to fix any problems and cast their ballots on Election Day.
The decision came after Tennessee Black Voter Project and the Memphis NAACP sued the county, a move Tennessee Black Voter Project statewide manager Tequila Johnson said will allow some 1,000 people who may not have been able to otherwise to vote on November 6.
“We have not progressed as much as we should have. That should not have even been the case. We should not have had to sue for equitable access to the voting booth,” Johnson, who drove from Memphis Saturday morning to join the block party, said in an interview with ThinkProgress.
“Basically, winning was a validation for me to say, ‘You know what, this is wrong. This is wrong on so many levels’,” she said. “I don’t care if it’s one or two or three voters, voter suppression is wrong and it hurts communities of color. It hurts marginalized, low-income communities, and it’s just unfair.”
The state of Tennessee is ranked 49th in the country in voter participation, and Johnson said she hopes events like the block party in Antioch, which tie music, food, and fellowship to voting, will help turn people out.
“It’s exciting,” she said, surveying the crowd. “That’s why we do the work that we do.”
One woman, Davasenia Adams, a 56-year-old nurse from the area, stumbled upon the party Saturday, which she said made her excited to vote.
Among other things, she said, she was excited to vote for Amendment 1, which would create police oversight board in Nashville. That proposal that has received considerable attention following two recent fatal shootings of African American men by white police officers in Nashville the over the last two years.
Just last month, Nashville Police Officer Andrew Delke was charged with criminal homicide after he was caught on video shooting 25-year-old Daniel Hambrick in the back as he ran away.
“The [Citizen Oversight Board] is going to be the start of betterment for this area,” Adams said on Saturday. “It will hold the police officers accountable… Not all police officers are like that, but the ones who are experiencing an issue like that, they need to be held accountable.”
Adams said she was also motivated to vote because of the recent hearings for Supreme Court nominee.
“I’m not Republican or Democrat. I’m independent,” she said. “But the nail in my coffin was when they put [Kavanaugh] on the Supreme Court… We need to have a voice. Because other people don’t give a rat’s tail about us.”
The fact that Phil Bredesen, the former Democratic governor currently running for Senate against Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), said he would have voted for Kavanaugh brought up some complicated feelings, Adams said.
As a nurse, however, Adams said she just cannot vote for Blackburn, who recently voted for a bill panned as a giveaway to pharmaceutical companies. The legislation also has been criticized for undercutting the Drug Enforcement Agency and making it harder to restrain opioid use.
“I know for a fact that I’m not going to vote for somebody who, as a nurse, has given me many, many patients,” she said. “This opioid crisis is just really one of the motivating factors for me, because you can’t sit up and get rich off the lives of my patients and expect me to vote for you.”
(According to Open Secrets, Blackburn has received more than $860,000 from the pharmaceutical industry over the course of her political career.)
Another attendee Saturday, 62-year-old retired Air Force veteran Julius Shook, joined the party after coming to the library to cast his ballot and check out a few books.
“I’m really dismayed that at this time, in 2018, we’re still fighting over voter suppression [and voter] rights,” he said of the recent lawsuit in Shelby County. “They don’t have the same literary requirements that they used to, but I’m really dismayed… I think everybody should get a fair shot. I really do.”
Shook said he was born and raised in Tennessee and takes his right to vote very seriously. He added that he was most excited to cast his vote for Amendment 1 and for Bredesen.
“I have a lot of civic pride,” Shook said. “My parents used to vote — they were doing that during the Civil Rights [Movement] — and so I would go with them, so that was exciting for me. I take my right to vote seriously.”
Seeing so many people gather to celebrate voting, Shook said, “It feels good. It makes me thankful.”