The Rev. Earle J. Fisher, Ph.D. at the UpTheVote901 People’s Convention in June.

U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger seems to know what we all know: There is no voter fraud epidemic in Tennessee — no matter what kind of restrictive laws state officials pass.

Trauger was right on Sept. 12 when she said there is “simply no basis” for the State of Tennessee’s new law cracking down on paid voter registration efforts. Set to go in effect Oct. 1, her decision blocks the law for now. This ruling granting a preliminary injunction is a step in the right direction, but it is also evidence that the struggle continues. The struggle is structural, institutional and systemic.

The effort to impose penalties of up to $10,000 for incomplete or inaccurate voter registration forms is really a scare tactic designed to disenfranchise voters, especially black, brown and poor voters seeking to have a say in system that isn’t designed for them.

The law is aimed at grassroots organizations like The Equity Alliance, which has been quite successful in registering new voters. The law would have also criminalized groups that didn’t follow specific regulations related to voter registration drives.

This is further evidence that those in control of administering and advising the electoral process are more concerned with complicating civic engagement than making it easier.

While Trauger’s ruling is only a preliminary injunction against the Tennessee law, the state is pursuing it nevertheless. This is further evidence that those in control of administering and advising the electoral process are more concerned with complicating civic engagement than making it easier.

This might explain why Tennessee’s voter turnout is so abysmal.

“The state of Tennessee was a dismal 40th in voter registration at 74 percent of voting age population, and was 50th in voter turnout, just 28.5 percent” in 2014, Tyler Whetstone, wrote in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Yet, in 2018, turnout was on the rise: Through efforts associated with the Tennessee Black Voter Project, the state saw a 664% increase in voters under age 30. Lawmakers’ response was to make it harder for people to get registered to vote.


People who have been duly elected to protect and defend citizens’ constitutional rights are willing to sacrifice these rights on the altar of partisan speculation and political manipulation.

As leader organizer for UpTheVote901, I am thrilled about the ruling, but I’m also concerned the Secretary of State and the Shelby County Election Commission are guilty of voter disenfranchisement. These entities should be working with residents and community groups to give more access to more people. But too often, they are found doing the opposite.

Why hasn’t Linda Phillips, Shelby County elections administrator, and her team organized a meeting with the plaintiffs in Shelby County and other organizations doing voter engagement work and sought to work out a plan to increase access, efficiency and turnout?

If voter fraud is such a concern, why hasn’t there been a plethora of fraud cases filed in court?

If voter fraud is such a concern, why hasn’t there been a plethora of fraud cases filed in court?

My commitment to election integrity is such that I would leap to work with Phillips in holding those intentionally fraudulent accountable.

If the issue were the number of ballots that came in before the deadline were incomplete or insufficient and this somehow burdened the election commission such that it couldn’t do its job properly, why not just request to move the date up? This would give the election commission more time to process the forms, right?

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett told The Washington Post the ballot fiasco “in Memphis wasn’t evidence of suppression but rather proof that voter registration groups needed to be reined in.”

Former Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Corey Strong raised concerns in 2018 about potential voter suppression.

Um, if the secretary and his constituents are hard-pressed about registration forms being inadequately filled out or fraudulently turned in, there’s a rather simple solution he could offer — automated voter registration. Why not propose that? Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., have already implemented the policy.

These are things people think through when they want more people involved in the political and electoral process. But, if your aim is complicity or collusion with voter suppression, then you pass unjust laws that lead to lawsuits that cost taxpayers more money trying to buy time.

Instead of being at the vanguard of electoral inclusion, Tennessee lawmakers and the Shelby County Election Commission leadership felt compelled to be on the frontlines of political regression.

We cannot wait until the 2020 election to get this right.

The Rev. Earle Fisher, Ph.D., is the founder and lead organizer of UpTheVote901 and the Henry Logan Starks Fellow at Memphis Theological Seminary.

Where do we go from here?

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.