Voters file into the polling location at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church on Monday, July 27, 2020. Photo by F. Amanda Tugade for MLK50

As Marye Bernard and Marshe Turner left the early voting site at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church on Monday afternoon, they stopped to take a selfie in front of the flagpole near the building’s entrance. The two had just voted and wanted to celebrate the moment before heading back to work.

Bernard, 58, uploaded the photo to her Facebook page and added a caption: “A privilege that shouldn’t be denied. Please vote.”

Then she added another image to that post — a picture of two poll tax receipts that had belonged to her great-grandparents, Fred and Mary Howard. The couple had paid $2 and some change to vote in the 1924 and 1928 elections in Memphis.

Fred and Mary Howard’s poll tax receipts from 1924 and 1928. (Courtesy of Marye Bernard)

The receipts are a blatant example of voter suppression through a law designed during the Jim Crow era to essentially bar Black Americans and some poor whites from the ballot box.

Her great-grandparents’ determination to exercise their right to vote has inspired Bernard to vote in every election since she turned 18. And not even the coronavirus pandemic could make her break that tradition and family honor.

“If they could do it and pay, certainly, I can do it when that right is free,” said Bernard, as she scrolled through her photos on social media to show proof of her family’s history.

Bernard and Turner, family nurse practitioners and co-owners of Spirit Health Medical, were among about 4,500 who cast votes in Shelby County on Monday, even while the number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

On Friday, the county health department reported 415 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 20,797. The death toll now stands at 275.

The pandemic has not slowed voters in going to the polls, despite a recent ruling by a federal judge that expanded absentee voting eligibility to those concerned about the virus, said Shelby County Election Commission administrator Linda Phillips.

Times are turbulent and political division deep, sparking more civic engagement, including by people who previously were nonvoters, according to a February report by the Knight Foundation.

The first full week polls were open (July 20–25), 24,848 people voted in Shelby County, about a 76% increase over the 14,104 who voted during the first full week in 2016, Phillips said. Early voting began July 17 and runs through Aug. 1, while the state and federal primaries and general election will be held Aug. 6.

The ballot includes races for General Sessions Court clerk, county school board members and a Collierville municipal judge. Voters also can choose among Democratic and Republican candidates vying for seats in the U.S. House and Senate, as well some district seats in the Tennessee Senate and House. Sample ballots can be found online at the election commission’s site.

As healthcare workers, Bernard and Turner see the virus as a foe, and their votes as a lifeline.

“This is as essential as going to get groceries, going to get gas,” Turner, 48, said. “I think everyone — whether you choose to do this in person or by mail — you need to exercise that right.”

The election commission has put safety measures in place to protect poll workers and voters from the virus, Phillips said. Workers are required to wear masks and are provided gloves, gowns, face shields and arm coverings. Voters are offered masks if they don’t have one, hand sanitizer and disposable stylus pens for voting machines.

Voting booths are also placed far apart from each other, and floors are marked with tape for social distancing, she said.

Out of the 1,081 poll workers, 85% of them are over the age of 60, Phillips said. Those seniors are part of the vulnerable population who are at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some poll workers chose not to return because of coronavirus concerns, Phillips said, but most did.

More voters this year are opting for absentee ballots. Through Wednesday, the election commission received 8,359 absentee ballots, far surpassing the final count of 1,345 by the end of early voting in 2016, Phillips said.

That rise was expected: A June 4 ruling by a federal judge made absentee ballots available to all eligible voters this year, regardless of whether they meet Tennessee’s strict requirements. Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled in favor of plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed on behalf of residents of Memphis and Nashville, asking that concern about exposure to the virus be allowed as a valid excuse to vote absentee.

The Tennessee Supreme Court on Thursday heard oral arguments in the state’s appeal of the lower court ruling.

Meredith Regan considered applying for an absentee ballot, but the more she looked into it, the more she became worried about the process, including whether she would receive the ballot in time to meet the election deadline.

Regan, 38, quit her job in March and left Memphis on a whim to travel the world for four months, but the pandemic derailed her plans and she ended up in Chicago. She headed back to Memphis to vote in person instead of taking her chances with the mail.

On Monday, Regan joined her friend Christina Herrera at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church.

“Casting your ballot is worth it whether it’s driving 7 ½ hours or standing in line for 7 ½ hours,” Regan said. “It’s the only thing we have right now.”

Before leaving, Regan and Herrera placed their red “I Voted” stickers on their masks. Like Bernard and Turner, Regan pulled out her cellphone and posed for a picture with Herrera.

“Every single person, regardless of what your political opinions are, needs to get out there and make their voice count,” Regan said. “Do whatever it takes to make that happen.”

F. Amanda Tugade is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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