In March, I left my Memphis home for six weeks to join my nursing peers on the frontline of America’s COVID-19 pandemic in the ICU at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital. Experiences with those patients in New York will forever be etched in my mind – like the 25-year old man with no underlying health conditions who went into cardiac arrest and died as his mother wept on the floor of the hospital, or the patients in semi-private rooms who watched as roommates underwent advanced CPR, only to see their roommates end the night zipped in a body bag, waiting in the room for an overburdened coroner. One night, nurses fueled by adrenaline rushed from room to room to keep patients stable as the hospital ran out of oxygen because of the unprecedented number of ventilated patients.
I never thought that we would live to see times like this. It was the most heart-wrenching experience in my ten years as a nurse. I left New York with a fire in my belly to do whatever I can to make sure this scene will not play out in other communities—especially in Tennessee where I serve as a State Senator.
I am moving from the day-to-day fight on the frontlines at the hospital to the frontlines at the Tennessee Capitol. In each instance, it’s the people whose lives depend on my service, who remain at the forefront of my mind. My objective for this legislative session is to ensure that Tennessee takes every step necessary to prevent and prepare for the deepening of this global health crisis. Every part of our society has had to urgently adapt and respond, and our elections are no exception. We cannot allow the decisions made by the legislature to continue to be driven by politics and not by data and science.
Tennessee’s elected leaders showed little urgency or interest in adapting our election rules to meet the sweeping tide of this pandemic. The inertia is unconscionable and disturbing. It took a court ruling to temporarily lift absentee voting restrictions, so that our elections are not set up for failure and communities are not forced to make an impossible choice: their vote or their health.
Voters must have a choice in how they cast a ballot while COVID-19 remains a threat. And we cannot allow the Governor, Secretary of State or the Republican Party to challenge this court ruling and take away the right to safely vote from our communities, as they did in Texas.
We cannot allow a repeat of what we saw in Wisconsin to happen in Tennessee—or anywhere—in November. Wisconsin’s election in early April showed us all the dangers of failing to make changes in response to Coronavirus: 97% of Milwaukee’s polling places closed as poll workers quit, leaving voters to risk their health waiting in line for hours and voting in crowded places. Thousands more were not able to vote at all.
Because of the court ruling, we are on the right path for safety holding elections.
Tennessee has up to $55 million available in federal funding to invest in elections from both the Help America Vote Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Some of this funding is designated to improve the safety of Tennessee’s elections given the pandemic. We have the solutions and the resources to meet this challenging process. There is no reason why our state should not temporarily expand absentee voting so that all Tennesseans can safely make their voices heard this year.
All voters—regardless of age, race, party, or the state they live in—should have equitable access to the ballot. Each of us has a voice, and in a democracy, every voice matters. Allowing all eligible Tennessee voters to cast an absentee ballot, if they choose, is a real goal we can accomplish together. On the other side of this crisis, when we look back and see that even in the midst of a global pandemic, our state’s democracy did not falter – we will be stronger for it.
Katrina Robinson is a Tennessee State Senator, Registered Nurse, and Business Owner.