Sohn: Don't take your vote for granted

Staff file photo by Doug Strickland / Jean Crates casts her ballot during early voting at the Hamilton County Election Commission on July 19, 2016.
Staff file photo by Doug Strickland / Jean Crates casts her ballot during early voting at the Hamilton County Election Commission on July 19, 2016.

Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.

Some 16 years, our Supreme Court decided a presidential election by ruling on how votes were counted. This year, our federal appeals courts are helping to decide who can cast votes in the first place.

The high court has only itself to blame if its members - shorthanded though they may be without a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia - have to step into the controversial spotlight again before November.

It was the Supreme Court, after all, that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 2013, freeing states to impose new rules for registering and voting that, in the name of virtually non-existent voter fraud, opened the door to a raft of new Jim Crow provisions limiting access to the polls - especially for minorities and young people, the coalition that propelled Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 and 2012.

In all, 17 states put new voting procedures in place. Some, like Tennessee, required strict photo IDs. Others limited ballot box access across many miles and eliminated early voting or same-day voter registration. By the spring of this year, more than half of those states' new limits had been challenged in various courts around the country, and in recent weeks, federal appeals courts have knocked down the new barriers in five states: North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, Kansas and North Dakota.

Hamilton County general and Tennessee primary election stories

In North Carolina, a wide-ranging law targeted rules with what the appeals court called "almost surgical precision" for registering, early voting and provisional voting. In Texas a strict photo identification provision promised to turn away up to 600,000 voters from November's ballot boxes, And in North Dakota, Native Americans were targeted.

These state-by-state appeals court voter victories have Tennessee Democrats stoked for change here where voting has become so restricted that the Volunteer State has been considered the ninth most difficult in which to cast a ballot.

Who can argue with making voting rights more practiced and truly voter-friendly?

Well, Republicans, of course. It's no secret that Republican candidates are favored when there is lower voter turnout.

That's why Republicans in leadership are always trying to make voting harder, and Democrats are always trying to make it easier. That's why U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, and other Democrats called on the state's General Assembly to make changes to Tennessee's photo voter-ID mandate - a law pushed through in 2011 by the Republican-dominated legislature. That's also why the state's Republican leadership, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, stood behind Tennessee's voter ID law.

You might recall Chattanooga's own Dorothy Cooper, who at 96 in 2011 became the cause célèbre of voter suppression. She was the kind of real minority, Democratic-leaning voter that Republicans really feared, though they claimed voter IDs were needed to combat virtually non-existent voter fraud in Tennessee during the run-up to Barack Obama's 2012 re-election bid.

Cooper, who had outlived two husbands and voted some 70 times in her long life, sparked a national firestorm in October that year when she was denied a photo ID at a local Driver Service Center - a photo ID that she and 500,000 other Tennesseans did not have.

The new Tennessee law required residents to show a photo ID to vote. Cooper, who never learned to drive and had no driver's license, was applying for that photo ID card, and followed the directions she was given: bring her birth certificate, her voter registration card and two pieces of ID. She took a rent receipt and a copy of her lease. But she was denied the ID because the name on her birth certificate did not match the married name on the other documents. She did not have a copy of her marriage license to prove she was the same Dorothy Alexander from her 1915 birth certificate.

Her story made national news and became a rallying cry against our new Jim Crow laws. Republicans continued to argue the law was needed as a safeguard against voter fraud. Never mind that only one case of such fraud was found in our state among the 6 million votes tallied in the three previous statewide elections.

In the fall of 2014, a Government Accountability Office report put the proof in the pudding. The GAO found that strict voter identification laws passed in Tennessee and Kansas had resulted in steeper drops in election turnout - especially among black and young voters - than Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware and Maine, which did not have such laws between the 2008 and 2012 elections. In Tennessee in 2012, the GAO said turnout dropped 2.2 percentage points - or about 88,000 fewer votes.

Fast forward to 2016. In Hamilton County's early voting, 11,509 people cast ballots.

That was just over half the number cast here in early voting in 2014 when 21,544 people voted early.

It is impossible to know the reason for each dropped vote, but it's a good bet that voter suppression, along with a good dose of voter disgust, played a role.

What is certain is that every one of us has a responsibility to vote, and a responsibility to help others vote.

In November, be a voice - not just a number.

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