Tennessee students continue their fight against a discriminatory voter ID law

Since 2014, student activists from Fisk University and Tennessee State University have been fighting to have student IDs added to their state's list of acceptable forms of voter ID. Moments after a bill that could have done just that was defeated, they gathered in solidarity outside of the committee room. (Photo courtesy of Justin Jones.) 

"Why is it that a handgun carry permit can be used when casting a ballot, but a student ID card cannot?"

Tanya Torres, president of the student government at Fisk University, a historically black school in Nashville, Tennessee, asked that question last week in an impromptu press conference outside the office of state Rep. Tim Wirgau, the Republican chair of the Committee on Local Government.

Just minutes before the press conference began, Wirgau refused to allow Torres and about two dozen other students from Fisk and Tennessee State University (TSU), another historically black school in Nashville, to testify in support of House Bill 2457. Introduced by Democratic Reps. G.A. Hardaway and Sara Kyle, the proposal would have amended the state's voter ID law to include student IDs as an acceptable form of voter ID. The committee voted down the bill without hearing from those who would be most impacted by its passage. 

After the vote, the students erupted in chants of "No justice, no peace!" and were escorted out of the committee room. Undaunted, they gathered outside Wirgau's office and continued to argue their case. 

Torres contrasted the state's lax gun laws with its strict voting laws and challenged the unsubstantiated claim that student IDs are more easily replicated and thus susceptible to fraud. A former legislative intern, Torres noted that she was able to use her intern ID — which is no more secure than a student ID — to vote. She observed that 70 percent of the students at Fisk are from out of state and thus face barriers in accessing IDs acceptable under Tennessee law. She also pointed out that Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Virginia allow student IDs  to be used for voting. 

This is not the first time students from Tennessee's historically black schools have taken on their state's voter ID law, which was passed in 2011 and is one of the strictest in the country. Inspired by North Carolina's Moral Movement, they have been fighting to have student IDs added to the list of acceptable voter IDs since 2014.

That fight has taken them not only to the legislature but to the courthouse. On the 50th anniversary of the historic Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March in 2015, nine students from Fisk and TSU — collectively known as the Nashville Student Organizing Committee — filed a federal voting rights lawsuit against Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett. Citing the 14th and 26th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit claimed the voter ID law intentionally discriminates against students by barring them from using their school IDs even though the nearly identical employee IDs used by college and university faculty are acceptable. 

Though the student activists did not win their lawsuit, they have seen similar voter ID laws struck down in states including North Carolina in recent years, helping to bolster their claim that Tennessee's law is discriminatory. They're considering further litigation.

The students understand the racial dynamics that they are up against. Voter ID laws have been shown to have a disparate impact on minority voters, who are more likely to be poor and less likely to have access to transportation and other resources necessary to acquire an acceptable form of ID. Whereas many white Americans simply use their license as identification without a second thought, minorities are less likely  to possess them, while many students rely on public transportation. 

Though the measure did not pass, the students say their struggle is not over. They plan to educate their fellow students about the bill's opponents, all of whom are up for reelection this year.

"If our votes were not powerful, they would not be trying to stop us," said Fisk student Justin Jones, one of the plaintiffs in the 2015 lawsuit.