Michael Nelson

Michael Nelson is contributing editor and columnist for The Daily Memphian, the political analyst for WMC-TV, and the Fulmer professor of political science at Rhodes College. His latest books are “Trump: The First Two Years” and “The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2018.”

Nelson: When it comes to voting legislation, I'm about to make you mad

By Published: May 02, 2019 6:01 PM CT

I’m about to say something that to me seems obvious but that in today’s politically and racially polarized climate may end up making everybody mad.    

Our elections should be open to every Tennessean in good legal standing who is eligible to vote by virtue of their age and citizenship. 

<strong>Michael Nelson</strong>

Michael Nelson

Elections should be closed to everybody else.

Liberals care mostly about the first of these principles, which means they’re not going to like that I support the Tennessee General Assembly’s bill to regulate paid voter registration drives and urge Gov. Bill Lee to sign it.

I’m also for continuing to require voters to show a photo ID.  And I’m against any effort to expand early voting. In fact, I’d like to dramatically shorten the time in which it’s available.

Conservatives mainly care about the second principle, the one about ballot security. I think convicted felons who have done their time should automatically have their voting rights restored.

Let’s take these arguments one at a time. 

Enfranchising ex-felons

Just as part of the penalty for committing a felony is loss of freedom, another part is loss of freedom’s basic right: the franchise.

But after people have done their time – including probation and parole – and fully re-entered society, why shouldn’t they regain the right to vote? 

That’s the purpose of a bill to change the state’s current felon disenfranchisement law supported by state Sen. Raumesh Akbari. I’d actually go farther than she does in one way. I’d restore the right to vote to all ex-cons, not just those who committed low-level felonies. 

I wouldn’t go quite as far as Akbari in another way, though.  She doesn’t think people should have to pay outstanding fines, fees and restitutions in order to regain the vote. I think they should at least have to establish a legally binding payment plan for doing so.

Nor would I go as far as Maine and Vermont – and as Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders advocates for the rest of the country – and extend voting rights to felons currently serving their sentences.

As for being current on child support payments – a requirement for restored voting rights that only Tennessee has – that has nothing to do with the crimes for which convicts are imprisoned and therefore no place in state law concerning voting.

Regulating paid voter registration drives

Being for legislation to enfranchise ex-felons doesn’t mean opposing another current bill to regulate groups that did what the Tennessee Black Voter Project did in Shelby County last fall: that is, pay people to gather as many registration forms as possible, including a significant number with nonexistent addresses or incomplete names – and then dump them on the election commission’s doorstep at the last minute.

The bill just passed by the Tennessee Legislature would impose penalties on those who conduct slapdash paid registration drives: civil fines in proportion to how many deficient forms a group turns in and (in a provision that in my opinion could go) a Class A misdemeanor conviction in isolated cases. It also would provide mandatory training for those who are paid to collect registration forms.

The bill does not apply – nor should it – to volunteer efforts, just paid ones.

Photo ID

 Two additional parts of liberal orthodoxy are that photo ID requirements for voting are bad and early voting is good. I disagree strongly on the first, less strongly on the second.

Face it: Showing a driver’s license or other government-issued photo identification card is an ordinary feature of modern life.

Try boarding a plane without one. Or buying an M-rated video game. Or renting a hotel room. Adopting a pet. Opening a bank account. Cashing a check. Picking up a prescription.

I’m 70 years old, but I get carded every time I order a beer or buy a bottle of wine.

None of these things needed an official photo ID a few decades ago, but now we take the requirement for granted.

Clearly every 21st-century American must have a photo ID to function in our society, and almost anything that encourages them to get one is good – including an obligation to prove you’re the registered voter you say you are before you’re allowed to cast a vote in an election.

Critics of requiring voters to prove their identity at the polls, as Tennessee and a growing number of other states do, argue that it’s a purely partisan effort by Republicans to disenfranchise pro-Democratic constituencies, especially people of color.

These critics constitute a loud but relatively small share of the American people. Surveys of public opinion during the past decade have consistently shown that more than 70% of all Americans support requiring voters “to show official, government-issued photo identification” (the wording in Washington Post polls on the subject) when they present themselves to vote. 

What’s more, opponents of the photo ID requirement represent a minority even of those for whom they claim to speak. Despite the chorus of complaints that photo ID laws are aimed at Democrats, African-Americans and Latinos, all three groups of voters support them: self-identified Democrats by about 60%, Latinos by about 65%, and African-Americans by 65% or more. 

Just last fall a broad cross-racial and bipartisan coalition comprising 80% of Arkansas voters decided that their state should join the ranks of photo ID-requiring jurisdictions. 

Scholarly studies by political scientist Benjamin Highton and economists Enrico Cantoni and Vincent Pons confirm that voter ID requirements have minimal effects on voter turnout in general and voting among disadvantaged populations in particular.

Early voting

As for extended early voting, which in Tennessee begins nearly three weeks before Election Day, it “doesn’t increase turnout,” according to elections analyst Nathaniel Rakich. “It just shifts when existing voters cast their ballots.”  A thorough review of 20 recent studies by the federal Government Accountability Office supports Rakich’s conclusion.

What early voting does do is ignore the obvious – namely, that campaigns continue and new information becomes available right up to the last day. Voting early means cutting yourself off from the possibility that this information might cause you to change your mind about which candidates to support.

Early voting hardly constitutes a fundamental right or a deeply rooted tradition. Not that long ago, the practice did not even exist. 

Accommodations for people who simply cannot make it to the polls on the day of the election would still be available if we reduced the early voting period from 20 days to 10, including a Saturday, as some states already have done. Eleven states – including bright blue Connecticut – have no early voting at all.

Making something easy also makes it less meaningful – no pain really does mean no gain. Allowing people to decide when to vote in a prolonged early voting period reduces the likelihood that they’ll ever get around to doing so. 

Shrink the voting period and you increase the chances that people will put their photo IDs in their pockets and head to the polls.

Ex-cons and all.


Voter registration Tennessee General Assembly Raumesh Akbari Tennessee Black Voter Project

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