Black voters were told to get behind the white voters. “You know what it is to stand at the back of the bus,” said election volunteers. Black voters were told to remove NAACP stickers from their cars-or leave the polling place without voting. Black voters were intimidated by police standing around polling places. Black voters stood in lines over a mile long to use ancient punch-card machines on the verge of falling apart. Sometimes, they’d stand for five or six hours. Once, they complained. Minutes later, two police cars came screeching up. Now, all this does start to sound like a promo for “Mississippi Burning”. Or maybe it’s a documentary about egregious civil rights violations in some Deep South backwater fifty years ago.
But it happened in November 2000.
Well, then, it’s got to be about Florida. The massive voter disenfranchisement in Florida has gotten some coverage, especially overseas-the people who weren’t felons illegally scrubbed from voting rolls, the police roadblocks in black neighborhoods, the Republican operatives illegally filling out absentee ballots.
But no. All these things-and much, much more-happened in Tennessee.
Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard anything about any of it. There’s very little information available even in Tennessee. Every newspaper, every radio station, every television news program is silent. Even Nashville’s newspaper, The Tennessean, where both Al and Tipper Gore once worked, has zero to say on the subject. And it’s not as if it’s been kept secret. The Tennessee Voter Empowerment Team met at the TN NAACP Conference of Branches on November 17th and released their findings to the state. But the only coverage has come from the Black press, newspapers like the Tennessee Tribune, Nashville Pride, and Urban Flavor. Yet there is massive evidence that thousands ? perhaps even tens of thousands– of people were disenfranchised, the vast majority of which were Black. How to explain it?
“People want to sweep this under the rug,” says Rev. Neal Darby, head of the Greater Nashville Black Chamber of Commerce. “They don’t want to think it could have happened here.” Indeed, Nashville was one of the birthplaces of the civil rights movement. It’s one thing to see films of black students getting iced tea dumped over their heads by a jeering white mob as they try to get served at Woolworth’s in the early 1960’s. It’s quite another to picture it in the year 2000. And yet-look at what did happen here.
It is more than the outrageous racial incidents: such as the way that black Nashville college students weren’t permitted to vote even though they were registered, or the way that Tennessee State University, a historically black college, was the only university in Tennessee that didn’t get a satellite voting place, or election office workers harassing black citizens who requested voter registration forms, or election commission officers refusing to give registration forms to NAACP representatives and sometimes, as in Chattanooga, actually taking them back. It’s the inexplicable things, such as the way that polling places all over West Tennessee opened one to two hours late, or disappeared and reappeared somewhere else without telling anybody-but, seemingly, only in areas that were Black and/or poor. Or the missing pages from election rosters all over Nashville. Or the county where ballot boxes were opened and ballots handled. So many vote irregularities were reported that the mind starts to numb after awhile, to get buried under the sheer avalanche and grasp for some sort of meaning and order. So it’s instructive to note that there were three areas of evidence that are more disturbing than any other.
The first was what NAACP officers generally refer to as “the Motor Voter disaster.” This was the first election year in which Tennessee’s Motor Voter bill took effect. Citizens could register to vote at Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) offices statewide. The problem is, an unknown number of those applications never went through. There have been nearly 2,000 complaints to date. Allegedly, this occurred because the department failed to deliver completed forms to county election commissions. It’s worth noting that there is no standard of delivery, nor supervision of any kind, when the applications are delivered from the Department of Safety to the counties-and that the DMV blames the voters.
The second was the disenfranchisement of former felons. Dr. Blondell Strong, Director for Prison Re-enfranchisement for the Tennessee Voter Empowerment Project 2000, narrowly prevented an attempt at disenfranchisement in Nashville. In Bolivar, former felons illegally lost their voting rights. Clifton Polk, head of the local Black Chamber of Commerce, was so infuriated that he filed an official complaint with the EEOC. Since felons don’t automatically lose their voting rights in Tennessee the same way that they do in Florida, this issue remains a murky mess. However, this was the first year it had happened in the state.
The third-and maybe the strangest-is the way that certain voting precincts all over the state had a small fraction of the voting machines they should have had. That’s what caused the mile-long lines in districts like Hadley Park and Upper Antioch. The really odd part is, all these districts seem to have been, once again, black, hispanic, and/or poor. According to election commissions, they simply didn’t know there would be such a large turnout. Maybe so. However, according to Tennessee State Election Commissioner , Brook Thompson, each county sends a list of registered voters to the polling places. The precinct list actually kept by volunteers often didn’t match the voting list. (Weird, huh?) Also, as state NAACP president Gloria Jean Sweetlove points out, the election commission knew about the NAACP Voter Empowerment Project, whose goal was to register new black voters. Also, the commission knew that there’d been a record turnout for early voting. So, once again, this remains a mystery.
Looking at all of this evidence, you have to wonder what would come out if Tennessee had the same kind of investigations that Florida has had, and will continue to have. Not to mention the fact that similar evidence has come out of twenty-one other states. The national NAACP, along with the ACLU, People for the American Way, Advancement Project, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, has filed suit to eliminate unfair voting practices. They will be sending representatives to Nashville soon in order to hold hearings about voter disenfranchisement there. So Tennessee may well end up being added to the national suit, and that would probably be the best shot at investigation. Certainly, the state attorney general has showed little interest to date. Yet nobody else has either-not the press, not the legislature, not the governor, not the senators. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why that bothered me so much. I tried to put it into words when I talked to Gloria Jean Sweetlove.
“Why is it,” I asked, fumbling towards words to express the inexpressible, “that I don’t see anything about this in the papers, or on TV? Why will nobody will touch this?”
She gave a long, long sigh. “I don’t think you’re old enough to remember. But in the fifties and early sixties,” she said slowly, “nobody would touch it either.” CP
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