Nettie Kraft runs the Barbershop Theater in North Nashville. She said That voter engagement makes a better community that supports small businesses like hers.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — The Tennessee Senate voted Wednesday on a bill to punish people who turn in too many voter registration forms with missing or incorrect information. The House passed it last week by a vote of 71-26. The bill needs Governor Lee’s signature to become law. Lee told the Associated Press last week that he hadn’t made up his mind about it yet. 

If he signs it, Tennessee, which now ranks 45th in the nation in voter registration and 49th in voter turnout, could sink to the bottom below Arkansas, West Virginia, and Hawaii. The bill has been widely criticized because it will criminalize voter registration drives and levy fines of up to $10,000 for violations. 

“If enacted, it would put Tennessee out of the mainstream and onto the map as the only state in the nation that subjects its citizens to potential criminal sanctions for registering other citizens to vote,” wrote Marian Ott, President of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee.

“To penalize civic groups who are out there simply trying to do their civic duty is the wrong way to go,” said Lenda Sherrell, State Director for the Tennessee Small Business Alliance (TSBA). 

Secretary of State Tre Hargett pushed the bill after the Black Voter Project (BVP) registered 86,000 voters for the midterm elections, some 4-5 thousand new voters in Shelby County alone. BVP filed 10,000 registration petitions in Memphis exactly 30 days before the election as current law allows. Election officials have 30 days to process them before an election. So what’s the problem?

Targett said that the so-called “dumping” created a big headache for the local election commission and it cost too much money to process the forms. What some call civic engagement, Hargett considers a potential crime and he wants to stop it.

As opponents of the bill have pointed out, the problem could be solved by simply changing the registration certification period before elections from 30 to 45 days, or better yet, enact same day registration in Tennessee as 16 states have already done.  

According to Tequila Johnson, Director of the Black Voter Project and Co-Founder of the Equity Alliance, Targett’s “solution” amounts to another attempt by Republicans to disenfranchise voters of color in Tennessee. 

“It’s voter suppression is what it is,” said Johnson. 

“I want my business to feel like it’s a part of the place that it’s from. And I want the place that it’s from to be healthy and connected and growing and being proud to be part of Tennessee instead of ‘I’m stuck here in TN where they’re trying to take away my right to vote’,” said Nettie Kraft, co-owner of The Barbershop Theater in North Nashville. 

Kraft registered voters in the last election. She said it wasn’t easy. “If I had made a mistake in my first time trying to participate in my democracy this way that it would have actually damaged possibly my reputation, maybe my business, and definitely the good will of the community around me and they need to be brought into the fold,” Kraft said.

Kraft teaches at Belmont and Lipscomb University. She is former Education Director of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. She is a performance artist and her small business depends on foot traffic. 

“I feel like if people thought that I cared as a business owner in the neighborhood I’m in about whether or not their voice is heard, then they would be more interested in stepping into my building and seeing a show,“ she said.

Kraft said if people feel like their community cares and is connected to them and they have a say in their life, they tend to make better financial decisions, they tend to become a part of their community and there is less isolation. “The resources are connected and flow more freely,” Kraft said.

Kraft thinks Hargett’s registration bill is bad and said there is a connection between voter participation and the community that sustains her theater. 

“If we tell people that they don’t matter they’re going to act like they don’t matter and they’re going to take their money elsewhere or they’re going to not make good choices with their money,” Kraft said.