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Voter suppression further divides Americans, hurts Tennesseans

Judy Garland, Community Voices Columnist • Nov 3, 2018 at 7:15 AM

Approaching the midterms, voter suppression was evident in many red states across the country, some places open and outright, others with more stealth. Voter names have been blatantly purged without notification, mostly leaning Democrat, with demands for open inspection strongly resisted, often requiring tough and difficult legal actions.

Mail-in ballots from mostly minority voters have been called invalid for ridiculous and insignificant reasons. The most egregious of all examples occurred in Georgia and got the most press, but there were many more across the country, including Shelby County, Tennessee.

All this on top of our all-time Republican favorite form of redistricting, twisting the democratic process so that, in effect, representatives can choose their voters instead of other way round. Watchdog groups, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and others along with grassroots support, are actively fighting back. In most cases, after long slogging battles, they are winning. The fact that efforts to restrict voting are usually aimed at minorities, often poorer communities, and at younger voters, makes it especially and all the more divisive and offensive.

When I think of the straight-up intentional refusal of Tennessee legislators to allow any kind of fair vote on Medicaid expansion in 2014, along with their deft and rapid move to block Governor Haslam’s Insure Tennessee alternative in 2015, it all fits together as just another way to suppress the political will. I’ve written before, maybe more than once because it infuriates me, how the polling, when Insure Tennessee came out, showed easily two-thirds of our population favoring the proposal. The Tennessee Hospital Association and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, the medical professionals’ groups as well as the wider business community, all encouraged a quick passage in the legislature. And that support still stands.

The obstruction resulted from nothing less than premeditated, ideology-driven, outside-money-backed, and surgically administered corruption of the process by Senate leadership and their willing cohorts in the House. Many Republican lawmakers, recognizing the economic benefit to their regions’ hospitals and communities, said they supported the Republican Governor’s conservative proposal, and supposedly were ready to vote with all the Democrats to make it happen. The two main sponsors on record in the Senate were Republican. But the big boots did their walking all over impassioned but ineffectual objections. All work by the rank and file was unceremoniously dumped to the side by a relatively small number of power brokers. And the final deadly committee vote was simply taken without a single word of discussion. An open-floor vote occurred in neither the House nor Senate.

It’s probably a no-brainer to suspect the power and money of the Koch brothers’ front group, Americans for Prosperity, had a lot to do with all this. Their stooges arrived in the state by the hundreds in early 2015, with their money and stereotypically canned language, directly subverting the will of the people and our thinking Republican Governor, whom they found just wasn’t hard-core Republican enough. They’re still here, folks, still hard at work.

Since Insure Tennessee failed, every year has seen a strong grassroots effort to put Medicaid expansion back on the agenda, to effect real hearings and the simple gift of a vote for the health of our people and our hospitals. Each of these three times, House and Senate leadership responded curtly that it couldn’t be considered.

It’s mind-boggling for them to seem unaware of Tennessee’s rural hospitals closing at a faster rate per capita than anywhere in the nation. We’re up to 11 now, in the time since Medicaid expansion, partially designed to improve hospitals’ bottom lines, could have been available. Physicians Regional Medical Center in North Knoxville and Lakeway Regional Hospital in Morristown will close by year’s end. When hospitals become more distant, danger grows for seniors, pregnant women, anyone with an emergency, even if they have insurance. Not to mention hospitals being major employers in their communities.

What can be done? Not much, if anything, as long as Republican leadership insists on denying the will of the people. Here’s where I reason that voter suppression is at play. Many states allow citizen-led referenda to decide issues the people may favor but legislative leadership consistently resists. Tennessee does not. The very idea would be instantly and furiously fought by the out-of-state money bags. We have no referenda on any of our ballots for which the legislature itself does not provide the initiation and their wonderful wording.

There are 132 members of the Tennessee legislature, and probably most of them, unbought, would vote for expansion of Medicaid. None would be punished by constituents for voting in support of regional hospitals, and providing insurance to low-income people, many of whom are their own family members. Our region’s legislators have certainly heard the message that Medicaid expansion would be welcomed locally, by large majorities. How can it be, then, that our hands are tied? A kind of voter suppression?

There are 6.72 million people in Tennessee, but on expansion of Medicaid we millions don’t count.

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