As detailed in this week's Politics column, allegations of possible election irregularities in Shelby County have once again erupted. These may ultimately blow over, but they have to be taken seriously now. Why?
Election year 2008, which first produced Republican control in both chambers of Tennessee's legislature, established the GOP as the state's dominant party, and that fact mandated that the state's election commissions — county-by-county and in the state at large — should have Republican majorities. GOP electoral dominance was further enhanced by the Republican Party's overwhelming legislative victories in 2010. And the redistricting carried out by the Republican-dominated legislature following the 2010 U.S. Census basically ensured that Republicans will be in charge of Tennessee's political fortunes — and its elections — as far as the eye can see.
Gerrymandering was at the core of that GOP redistricting, as it always was during the 150-odd years when the Democrats were in control of the process. Beyond that, the now dominant Republicans have been disingenuous, arguably even deceitful, in two other particulars.
One was in the party establishment's decision in 2009 to sabotage the 2008 Tennessee Voter Confidence Act, which had mandated the upgrading of the state's election machines with "paper trail" capability to guarantee accurate election counts. The TVCA had passed a politically balanced legislature in 2008 with virtually unanimous support from both parties. But, pleading technical and cost issues that were largely bogus, Republicans did an abrupt turnabout after that year's elections, which tilted the legislature in their favor. In the session of 2009, they managed to postpone implementation of the act, and, following their 2010 legislative sweeps, they killed it altogether in the General Assembly of 2011.
What came next in that 2011 session was legislation requiring official photo IDs of all Tennessee voters. The law, based on a model provided by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, was theoretically aimed at preventing vote fraud, but its provisions would have done little or nothing to prevent any proven fraud that had actually taken place. What the law would do — and will do, beginning this year — is impose undue hardships on seniors and impoverished or working-class voters, less apt than other Tennesseans to own such IDs, and students, whose college IDs were disallowed. That Democrats include these groups within their electoral base is hardly coincidental.
We cite this not to suggest that only Republicans are self-aggrandizing about the vote. Tennessee's Democrats are equally capable of subverting electoral justice — as they did in 2008 when they declared invalid the primary victory of one of their own, former state senator Rosalind Kurita, who had broken party ranks to help elect Republican Ron Ramsey speaker of the state Senate.
Elections are about power and about control of legal authority, and where these elements are involved, excesses are always possible. In the present case, it is not unlikely that the purported erasure of selected voters' election histories from certain Shelby County Election Commission records represents an innocent glitch rather than any nefarious intent. But we need to find out for sure.