The ACLU of Tennessee is launching a statewide awareness campaign to encourage eligible Tennesseans to vote early and safely in 2020.

By Brandon Tucker, ACLU-TN Policy Director

Your rights are on the ballot this November — so it’s critical you vote, safely.

In August, Tennessee lawmakers — whom we, as Tennesseans, had a hand in electing — passed a law criminalizing nonviolent protest just because they disapproved of the way young people were exercising their First Amendment rights.

Those who are elected can either bring about bold reform on issues like free speech, policing, health care and voting rights – or they can drag us in the wrong direction.
We can elect lawmakers that answer the call for racial justice instead of blatantly ignoring it and punishing the people who stand for justice. It is up to us to say which way we want our state and our nation to go. Every vote matters.

Why it's harder to vote in Tennessee than in most other states

Of course, some lawmakers have sought to restrict access to the ballot box. We know that voting is harder in Tennessee than in most states.

The state forces voters to register 30 days prior to the election, long before most have started thinking about casting a ballot; disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated individuals; and demands all voters present ID at the polls. Not surprisingly, in 2016, Tennessee ranked 46th nationwide in total voter turnout.
And – like so many other aspects of our society - voting is tougher still for Tennesseans of color. Black and brown people are overrepresented among those whose voting rights have been taken away and those without a photo ID.

A 2019 study by professors from University of California at Los Angeles, Carnegie Mellon University and University of Chicago shows lines at polling places are a third longer in Black neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods.

This, as COVID-19 hits communities of color particularly hard: for example, Black Tennesseans make up 17% of the state’s population but 33% of its COVID-related deaths.

Start making your voting plan now

Despite these challenges, we can fight back — by casting our ballots. That’s why the ACLU of Tennessee is launching a statewide awareness campaign, “Vote Like Your Rights Depend On It,” to encourage eligible Tennesseans to vote early and safely in 2020.

Here’s what you need to know:

  1. If you or someone in your care has an underlying condition that increases vulnerability to COVID-19, you can vote by mail. It’s up to you to decide if you or someone in your care has such a qualifying condition.
  2. If you’re voting absentee, you can request your ballot today. If a mailed ballot reaches your county’s election commission on time and is filled out correctly, it will be counted. The ballot must be received, not postmarked, by your local election commission by the close of polls on Election Day. The best way to ensure your ballot arrives by the deadline is to send it in by early October. Request your ballot now.
  3. If you’re voting in person, consider doing it early. Polling places are often less crowded during early voting, especially if you go at an off-peak time. The early voting dates for the election are October 14 - 29. Mark those days on your calendar and find out which polling places in your county are open early here.
  4. Make sure you’re registered to vote. You can check your registration status here. If you’re not registered, the deadline to do so is October 5, and you can register here. But if you plan to vote by mail you will need to register in person.

In the wake of all that has taken place in our country recently — the world witnessing what Black people have known for generations — we’ve seen a beautiful democratic movement emerge in Tennessee and beyond, a blazing call for our state and our country to live up to their founding promises.

Any path to realizing that vision runs through the ballot box. So start thinking about Election Day today. Make a plan to cast your ballot early and safely. And vote like your rights depend on it.

Brandon Tucker is policy director for the ACLU Tennessee.

This op-ed appeared in The Tennessean on September 9, 2020.