Voter discrimination within Franklin County and across the nation

By Vanessa Moss

Executive Staff

On November 1, two elderly black men, who wish to remain unnamed out of concern for their safety, claim to have been turned away from casting their ballots at the Franklin County voting office in Winchester. They report that they arrived at the voting office at 4:25 p.m., where they were told by members of staff working the polls that they could not vote because the office needed to shut down in five minutes. The gentlemen complied, and when they returned to their vehicle, they noticed two elderly white women walking into the same voting office and returning several minutes later with “I VOTED” stickers adorned on their chests.

If their statements are true, being denied the right to vote on the evening of November 1 violated the federal Voter Bill of Rights, which states, “You have the right to cast a ballot if you are present and in line at the polling place prior to the closing of the polls.”

According to the Administrator of Elections for Franklin County Margaret Ottley, the two men did attempt to vote on November 1, but she claims that they arrived at 4:30 p.m.: “The outside doors were locked at 4:30. Voters leaving the building opened the door to get out.  When the door was open, two gentlemen came in after 4:30 p.m.”

The five-minute difference between the two stories holds enormous power: If the men arrived at 4:30 or later, then the Election Commission’s actions were perfectly legal. However, if the men arrived any time before 4:30, then turning them away from the polls would violate federal law, giving grounds for serious legal and financial repercussions for the office if the men chose to report it to the Secretary of State.

Unfortunately, the conflicting stories are deadlocked between their word and Ottley’s, without any tangible evidence supporting either side. The building’s security cameras are only on the side of the County Mayor’s office and would not have recorded the men entering the building.

When asked to participate in an interview, Ottley argued that there was no point to discussing the topic any more, because “There is no story here.”

However, some national news sources have evidence opposing this.

This political season is the first presidential election with the new modifications of the Voting Rights Act in place, and journalists, politicians, and voters alike are anxious to see how the changes to the act affected voting across the nation.

The Voting Rights Act was put in place in 1965 during the Civil Rights Movement to ensure equal accessibility for minorities to voting places, and the majority of the original document remains unchanged. Section V in the act was removed in 2013 by the Supreme Court in the Shelby County v. Holder case, where they deemed the section unconstitutional.

Section V required all counties and jurisdictions with a history of racially discriminatory policies to submit all proposed voting changes to the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for required preclearance before any of the changes could be implemented. When drafted, the section was intended to be temporary and last only a few years until these jurisdictions could be trusted to act unilaterally without impeding any group of citizens’ ability to vote.

“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem,” said Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who voted in favor of removing Section V: “The Court upheld the measure against early constitutional challenges because it was necessary at the time to address ‘voting discrimination where it persisted on a pervasive scale.’ Today, our Nation has changed.”

The perception of institutionalized racism in the U.S. certainly has changed since 1965. But has it changed drastically enough to validate the absolute demise of Act V?

Since Shelby County v. Holder, 14 states–including Tennessee–have implemented new voting restriction laws. The most common are photo identification requirements, reduced early voting hours, reduced number of days that early voting is available, and new voter registration restrictions.

On July 29 a federal court removed North Carolina’s most stringent voting restrictions, arguing that the claim that the restrictions were to prevent voter fraud was a dishonest cover to hide the state’s true motivation to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

On election day, there were thousands of issues reported at the polls across the nation; by 9:30 a.m. EST, more than 5,500 calls reporting polling issues were made to the Election Protection hotline.

“This election may be the most chaotic election faced by voters of color and voters with disabilities in the last 50 years.” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Barbara Banks, the Director for Campus Life at the university, has been the liaison between The Sewanee Purple and the gentlemen who were turned away on November 1. The men did not agree to a private interview, and Banks defended them: “Their reasoning for not wanting their name and to get involved is that they are afraid of getting their houses burned.”

Banks has been a resident of Franklin County since she was born in Hodgson Hall in 1960, the only hospital in the county at the time where women of color could give birth. In all her years living here, she has never experienced difficulty voting as a woman of color, nor had she heard any reports of voter discrimination until this incident on November 1.

Protecting minority rights is as critical today as it was 50 years ago, and following Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts invited Congress to advance proposals that may stitch up any gaps in the enforcement of the adjusted Voting Rights Act. Two bills, the Voting Rights Amendment Act sponsored by Rep. Sensenbrenner (R-WI), and the Voting Rights Advancement Act sponsored by Rep. Sewell (D-AL), have attempted to do that through a renewed formula in deciding which jurisdictions need federal supervision, and would include a nationwide notice on what voting changes are known to be racially discriminatory.

The Voting Rights Amendment Act specifies that individual political subdivisions will have new federal surveillance requirements if “three or more voting rights violations occurred in it during the previous 15 calendar years,” or if that jurisdiction had one or more voting rights violations and extremely low minority turnout during the past 15 years.

Submitted in 2014 and 2015 respectively, Congress has failed to advance either bipartisan bill. Now, Tennessee is one of the most restrictive states to vote in and may become more severe in following elections. Tennessee shortened the early voting period statewide and required proof of citizenship in order to register to vote in the 2012 election. For the 2016 election they added a photo identification requirement. Whether intentionally or not, these restrictions have isolated minority voters in Tennessee and in other highly regulated states, affecting thousands of voters nationwide.

“Something happened, and it wasn’t right,” said Banks at the close of her interview. “And we just want to know what happened. And you need to let this community, this town, this county know that this took place.”