Story at a glance

  • Kayla Parker is the executive director of Organize Tennessee, a nonpartisan campaign to boost voter participation in the state.
  • After helping turn out a record number of voters in Georgia this year, she’s hoping to lay the groundwork for similar efforts in her home state.
  • Less than a year after the presidential election, organizers across the country are trying to capitalize on and continue the momentum.

Kayla Parker knows that voter protection isn't sexy, but if you have a minute — or 10 — she’d love to talk to you about it anyway. 

“I’m loud and I’m going to continue to be loud, but in a way that’s productive,” she said. “I’m not just going to be hollering to be hollering, but if it’s going to help voters be able to vote easier and be able to help nonprofits register voters easier, then I’m going to yell it from the rooftops because Tennessee deserves to know.”

Parker, a Tennessee native, knows that being loud can work because she’s seen it work. The University of Tennessee graduate worked for Amnesty International, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) and Amy McGrath — who challenged Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for his senate seat — before joining voter turnout efforts led by the Democratic Party of Georgia ahead of a historic runoff election in January. 

“I really was studying in all of these states and always wanting to come home and do the work in the place that I love the most,” she said. 

Now 25, she's back in her home state leading Organize Tennessee, a nonpartisan grassroots organization focused on ensuring and protecting voting rights for "those who have been historically kept at the margins, disengaged with civic institutions and convinced that their participation doesn’t matter."

Since launching earlier this month, the nonprofit has already begun hosting trainings for poll watchers and successfully petitioned the state to correct an erroneous election date — although Organize Tennessee is still pushing the state to notify constituents of the correction. 


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Last November, nearly 2.3 million Tennesseeans voted, roughly one-third of the state’s population and an increase of about 36 percent from the last presidential election in 2016. Still, even record turnout among eligible voters was among the lowest in the country, according to the U.S. Election Project.

More than 2 million voted early amid the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, a state lawmaker this week withdrew a bill to eliminate early voting and abolish voting machines after it had passed consideration to go to committee. 

As a queer Black woman, Parker’s lived experience has equipped her with an understanding of the barriers to voting in communities like her hometown of Memphis, Tenn., where voters are required to present photo identification issued by the state of Tennessee or the United States, according to a state law upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 2013. City-issued photo library cards and photo identification issued by other states are not accepted, which critics say disproportionately disenfranchises the more than 1 million Black residents of Tennessee, roughly 17 percent of the population.

“It’s going to take a lot of time and it’s going to take a lot of chipping away and it’s also going to call for making some noise,” said Parker. “Our goal is to break down every single barrier and then our goal is to register every single voter in Tennessee so that when they do show up to vote, their vote counts.”

The history of voter identification laws in the United States goes back to the Jim Crow era, but a resurgence of legislation began in the early 2000s. As of a 2016 survey, 7 percent of white respondents did not have either a driver’s license or passport, compared to 17 percent of Black respondents and 9 percent of Hispanic respondents. Advocates say the laws are necessary to combat voter fraud, although research has shown little evidence of a widespread problem.

What Parker does see, however, is room to grow. In west Tennessee, where she was born and raised, voting habits are deeply entrenched.

“In Memphis, in Nashville, in Chattanooga, in Knoxville, all of these places have created cultures where we see the same people voting year after year after year and they’re voting the same way year after year after year,” she said. 


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So who isn’t voting? A report published last October found that more than 20 percent of Black adults in the state — and 8 percent of the state’s adult population — cannot vote due to a felony conviction. As other states restore voting rights to incarcerated felons, Tennessee, which has some of the strictest restoration laws in the country, requires those who have been convicted of an "infamous crime" to have fully paid off their restitution and legal fees before their rights can be restored. 

In December, the Tennessee NAACP and five convicted felons launched a lawsuit against the state, saying the process to restore voting rights is “unequal, inaccessible, opaque, and error-ridden.” 

"Black voters in particular have long been silenced by Tennessee’s felony disenfranchisement regime," the complaint said, going on to allege that, "Tennessee’s felony disenfranchisement law continues to have a disparate impact on Black Tennesseans."

Overturning decades of history isn’t going to happen overnight, and Parker is prepared for the long haul. She’s optimistic that change can happen. After all, she’s seen it happen in Massachusetts, Kentucky and, most recently, in Georgia, where the state elected its first Black senator this year. 

“Tennessee has historically not been paid attention to and has not gotten the investment that it’s needed, especially our nonprofits that have been doing this work, but something that excites me is that people just saw what happens when you invest in the South,” said Parker. 

She believes in Tennessee, but she needs others to believe in the state too. For right now, she’s running on sheer anger: anger at seeing her community be neglected, especially in the face of COVID-19. 

“I will never forget. I will never forget the lack of leadership that this pandemic really showed and how many people exploited this pandemic for their own gain, especially when it comes to making it harder for voters to get to the ballot box when it matters the most,” she said. “So yeah, sheer anger, but also, optimism for what we can accomplish if more people lean into their anger.”


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Published on Feb 26, 2021