The novel coronavirus continues to slam the nation, we’re weeks away from Election Day, and people are mailing in their ballots. And some people are still going to vote early in person—and, apparently, mistakenly being turned away from their voting stations. As reported by the Associated Press, a poll worker has been fired after incorrectly turning away voters who wore “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts and masks. The poll worker in Memphis, Tennessee, was apparently under the impression that the slogans on these shirts were linked to the Democratic Party.
How did this happen? A spokesperson for the Shelby County Election Commission, Suzanne Thompson, told the AP that the worker was terminated after a witness at the Dave Wells Community Center in Memphis called officials. Thompson said a few voters were told to leave, but the exact number is not yet known. She described the incident as “pretty bad” and said, “they were not supposed to be turned away.”
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For some background, in Tennessee, voters are not allowed to wear items that display either the name of a candidate or a political party on the ballot when they’re inside (or within 100 feet from the entrance) of a polling location. But phrases like Black Lives Matter, as we know, are not actually affiliated with either party or candidate.
“What he did was patently wrong and he was fired,” Thompson told the Commercial Appeal.
Linda Philips, Shelby County Administrator of Elections, told local outlet WMC 5 said this was “not acceptable,” and: “We covered this in training.”
In the big picture, a few issues are at play here. One, racial equality and standing against police brutality should not be party-based issues. While Donald Trump (and other Republicans) have made the subject incredibly divisive, the slogan and protests should actually ideally not suggest a tie to any political party platform. Dismantling structural and systemic oppression and violence should be fundamental priorities for progressives, conservatives, moderates, and everyone in between.
The other big picture issue is, of course, one of actually voting. With Trump’s long-haul efforts to dismantle United States Postal Service (USPS), his rallying against mail-in voting on the incorrect basis of it being “corrupt,” and unauthorized GOP ballot boxes popping up, transparency around how, when, and where to vote is as confusing as ever. And of course, with an ongoing pandemic, some people are eager to vote by mail if possible for their health—but also, many people are hoping to vote early and in person to reduce long lines and congestion at voter stations. The importance of this election can’t be overstated (and the importance of state and local elections, as well).
Whether you're planning to vote by mail, early, or on Election Day, it’s important to remember that poll workers are integral to having our process be safe, accessible, and smooth. And historically, a lot of older people have been poll workers. Older people, as we know, are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. In addition to encouraging people to get educated and vote, you can also volunteer to work the polls and make sure polling stations are adequately staffed.