9 HBCU students suing Tennessee over voter ID law

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BY CHARLES D. ELLISON
THE ROOT

The voter-ID war just opened up a huge new front. This time in Tennessee. A group of nine students from HBCUs Fisk University and Tennessee State University have filed a federal lawsuit against Tennessee’s heavily contested and controversial voter-ID law.

Members of the Nashville Student Organizing Committee at the Tennessee Capitol share a message that voter-ID laws silence students’ voices on March 25, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn.(COURTESY OF NASHVILLE STUDENT ORGANIZING COMMITTEE)
Members of the Nashville Student Organizing Committee at the Tennessee Capitol share a message that voter-ID laws silence students’ voices on March 25, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn.
(COURTESY OF NASHVILLE STUDENT ORGANIZING COMMITTEE)

The suit was filed by the Nashville Student Organizing Committee (NSOC), a coalition of student activists established in February 2014.

The plaintiffs were all disallowed from voting in 2014 because they carried student IDs as identification. NSOC retained the Washington, D.C.-based Fair Elections Legal Network, which then partnered with the local Nashville-based firm Barrett Johnston Martin & Garrison as part of a legal project to restore student voting rights in the state.

Common feature
The case marks a highly unprecedented turning point in the ongoing conflict over voter ID and other Republican-led voter-suppression laws accused of targeting Democratic-friendly young, minority and low-income voters.

With Republicans expanding their electoral gains in state legislatures, voter-ID laws have become a common feature in many key states and, as initial data suggest, disproportionately impacted large populations of color.

Observers are watching the new Tennessee case with heavy interest since it appears to be the first student-led legal action of its kind. Some view it as Supreme Court-worthy and a savvy political maneuver on the part of Black youth activists that could have far-reaching implications beyond Tennessee.

2016 elections influence?
The suit may very well advance because the Middle Tennessee federal district court is dominated by judges appointed by Democratic presidents. Chief Judge Kevin Sharp was recently appointed by President Barack Obama.

“Studies are showing that the voter-ID laws are suppressing youth turnout,” DePaul University political science professor Molly Andolina told The Root.

Andolina anticipates the emergence of a growing Black youth movement born out of frustration over issues such as police violence and voter ID that could influence the 2016 elections.

Simple intent
Christina Rivers, another DePaul University political scientist, agreed: “To the extent that #BlackLivesMatter converges with other potentially suppressive factors such as voter-ID laws, along with reductions in early and Sunday voting, it will likely mobilize voters.”

At the moment, said Doug Johnston, a Barrett Johnston lawyer on the case who has also worked aggressively against the state’s voter-ID law since its passage in 2011, the current suit doesn’t seek “to dismantle the whole voter-ID law.”

However, it will seek to reverse what his clients view as violations of their constitutional rights under the 14th and 26th amendments.

“The basis of this lawsuit is really very simple,” Johnston told The Root. “It’s an attempt to have students treated in the same manner as similarly situated individuals.”

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