We’re in Tennessee because Tennessee needs voting-rights champions

By Amelia Schramm, state director, Let America Vote-Tennessee

It’s a question we get from time to time: What inspired y’all to come to Tennessee?

Let America Vote set up shop here this year because we saw an opportunity to make a critical difference. Today in Tennessee, Republicans enjoy unchecked control at almost every level of government, to the great detriment of voting rights and civic participation.

With GOP supermajorities in the state House and Senate, a Republican governor and a conservative majority on the highest court, there’s little that can be done if lawmakers decided, say, to purge the voter rolls or cut back early voting.

Little that can be done, that is, besides organizing like hell and getting out the vote on Election Day. Placing our boots on the ground here can help elect pro-democracy candidates committed to uprooting the entrenched voter suppression that keeps this state 49th or 50th nationally in voter turnout.

That’s what inspired us to come to Tennessee.

Let America Vote is committed to electing voting-rights champions in Tennessee in 2018.

We refuse to accept the argument that Tennessee is a lost cause. Too often, we’re dismissed as a red state where any electoral gains are essentially impossible. This is wrong, and it’s wrong for a couple of reasons.

First, there are plenty of competitive districts in Tennessee, and several that have seen a sharp swing away from Republicans in recent years. Let America Vote is targeting several races this year, including one where a Democratic challenger lost by fewer than 200 votes in 2016, and a couple others that saw double-digit shifts in Democrats’ favor from 2012 to 2016.

These races are close enough that Let America Vote’s field-first focus can have a game-changing effect on the results. By knocking doors and talking to voters, we can make the case for candidates on an individual bases. By gathering data and getting to know our voters, we can drive up turnout in November.

We also know, from our 2017 efforts in Virginia and elsewhere, which districts and demographics represent the best opportunities for R-to-D flips in this political climate — and we can see them right here in Tennessee.

Many of our targeted House districts are centered on the suburban collars surrounding Tennessee’s major cities. We’re pouring resources into races outside Knoxville, Chattanooga, Murfreesboro, Nashville and Memphis. These places are winnable with smart, sustained investments and a focus on local candidates and local issues.

Finally, it’s important to remember the GOP takeover of Tennessee politics took decades to accomplish, and was accomplished at least in part by a purposeful campaign of voter suppression. Which means it can be reversed if people’s access to the polls is restored.

Tennessee was considered a swing state up through the 2000 presidential election, when Republican George W. Bush defeated Democratic Tennessee native Al Gore. Democrats held a majority in the Tennessee House for almost 140 years, losing it only in 2008. Republican control over Tennessee politics was abetted and enhanced at every turn by restrictive voter ID policies, partisan gerrymandering and other techniques for driving down turnout and manipulating the electorate.

We can fight back. We can make Tennessee competitive again, and it starts with the effort we put in right here and right now. Let America Vote President Jason Kander visited our Nashville office not long ago, to remind us that we’re playing a long game, and that the immediate results may be small but still critical.

We may not convince every voter at every door and we may not flip every district in a single election, but the work we do makes the next conversation easier, and the next cycle more winnable.

Why did we come to Tennessee? Because there’s opportunity here, and we’re committed to seizing it.