When it comes to the last place someone would ever want to be, the line at the DMV ranks pretty high – somewhere between being stranded on a blazingly hot remote island devoid of any redeeming coconut trees with nothing but a volleyball to serve as your best friend and having to endure a painfully drawn out candle-lit sex scene while watching a movie with your partner’s parents. Standing in line at the DMV can feel longer than that last sentence did.
In the spirit of anti-DMV inefficiency, we’ll try to keep this post short and sweet, but a lot is going on behind the scenes.
So why is the DMV so slow in the first place? And how can something that seems like a minor inconvenience be representative of a larger systemic issue threatening the bedrock of our democracy?
Let’s get curious.
To understand why DMVs are slow you don’t have to look far. DMV agencies across the country are chronically understaffed and deal with large amounts of people coming in to handle a wide range of bureaucratic and logistical tasks. The result can be hours on end of wait time when trying to get a driver’s license, process a vehicle registration, or renew an ID card.
When this nightmare of a time vacuum meets voting rights – the result is robbing people of much more than a few hours.
The requirements you must meet to vote varies state by state. In theory, this should be one of the easiest tasks out there. Our entire society is based on democratic governance, and what’s a democracy if people can’t vote?
Despite this, there is a dark and well-documented history of states manipulating voting requirements to keep certain voices out of the democratic process. Back in the 1600s, only white, wealthy, male property owners could vote. After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment technically gave African American men the right to vote, but state lawmakers fought this at almost every corner.
They enacted restrictions such as poll taxes, literacy tests (like having to recite the entire constitution by memory), and violence to prevent black men from voting as part of a more extensive series of segregation laws titled Jim Crow Laws.
Mind you, women still weren’t part of the discussion as women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920.
These strategies succeeded in disenfranchising (being deprived the right to vote) the majority of black citizens, as well as many poor whites in the South. Voter numbers dropped dramatically in each state. The practice continued up until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when Congress demanded states protect the right to vote for all citizens without discrimination.
The story doesn’t stop there.
The same motivations behind restricting voting rights back then are alive and active today – and have made a resurgence in recent years as a response to growing minority voting participation. Let’s look at our state of Tennessee.
Tennessee has some of the harshest voting restrictions in the U.S. ranked as the 3rd most difficult state to vote in and is ranked 45th out of 50 states when it comes to voter registration rates. Topping things off, Tennessee has seen low voter turnout in previous elections—just 28.5 percent in the 2014 midterms, the lowest rate in the nation.
But voter turnout by non-white voters increased by up to 13 points between the 2014 and 2018 midterms. Moreover, the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition found that 7,834 legally documented immigrants cast a ballot for the first time – a number up 35 percent from the previous midterm election.
The trends have caused a backlash among Republican legislators who typically don’t find much support in these growing voting blocks. In response, Tennessee’s voting regulations have been built along three general lines to disproportionately disenfranchise minority populations by:
- Enforcing strict voter ID laws requiring state-issued photo IDs or driver’s licenses to vote
- Preventing people convicted of any felony from voting even after serving their required sentences
- Penalizing those attempting to register voters with civic charges and fines up to $10,000
Photo ID Laws
11 percent of voting-age citizens lack the necessary photo ID required to vote in Tennessee. Many people in rural areas have trouble accessing DMV offices due to locations that are either too far or have inconvenient operating hours. Requiring trips to the DMV to meet voting requirements disproportionately hurts those who may not have the luxury of taking an entire day off work to wait in line for a renewed photo ID.
Attorney General Eric Holder has compared these laws to the same poll taxes from the Jim Crow era. Researchers have found that states with strict photo ID laws saw a significant decrease in turnout among minority and immigrant voters and an increase in the participation gap between white and non-white voters.
At least five states are currently facing lawsuits against these discriminatory voting laws including, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Georgia, and North Carolina.
After completing time for a felony, formerly incarcerated people are allowed to vote in Tennessee. Out of the 323,000 Tennesseans who have completed their sentences, only about 11,500 have had their voting rights restored as of 2016 – less than 5%.
This is because Tennessee requires all court fines, fees, and outstanding child support be paid before registering to vote. Reporters from The Marshall Project have shown how the process of paying off fees and clearing paperwork is an incredibly complex process right now, and few officials know how to navigate it.
Over 60% of Tennessee Republicans and 78% of Tennessee Democrats support allowing people convicted of felonies to vote after they’ve served their time. Representative Michael Curcio, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has introduced a bill that would allow ex-felons restoration of their voting rights right away. It is currently on hold and is being discussed down at the capitol here in Nashville.
In 2019, Governor Bill Lee passed some of the harshest civic restrictions on people who are registering voters. For anyone submitting voter registration applications with any incompletions or incorrect information, you could land a fine of up to $2,000. Submitting more than 500 incorrect forms has fines of up to $10,000.
The Washington Post points out how these fines came in response to the Tennessee Black Voter Project turning in more than 90,000 voter registration applications — what organizers hoped would be the first step in a broader effort to get more African Americans involved in voting. If just 0.5% of these applications had any errors, the group would have been subject to a $10,000 fine.
A lawsuit from the NAACP and other groups currently has the legislation blocked and is set for trial in 2021. In the meantime, a new proposal was created last week that encourages voter registration education and doesn’t include the fines that a Tennessee judge just ruled as a “punitive regulatory scheme.”
I know that was a mouthful. You may even feel more worn out than after getting through the actual DMV. But the result of all this is important.
In Tennessee, an estimated 1 in 12 citizens are disenfranchised. And about 21 percent of black Tennesseans – more than one in five – are currently disenfranchised and unable to vote.
Keep an eye on the pending lawsuit against voter registration fines and how Representative Curcio plans to restore citizens’ voting rights.
And as always, stay curious.