A Tennessee poll worker was fired for asking voters to turn their shirts supporting Black Lives Matter inside out, violating his training as a nonpartisan election worker, according to a local election commission.
The poll worker, stationed at a Memphis early voting site, had told voters last week to turn their shirts inside out before allowing them to vote, said Shelby County Election Commission spokeswoman Suzanne Thompson.
Tennessee is one of several states that bans voters and poll workers from wearing clothing or accessories that endorse a political candidate, and it’s not uncommon for poll workers to ask voters to remove or alter their clothing if they’re wearing something that represents a candidate or political party.
But the fired poll worker, who the election commission didn’t name, “brought his personal bias into the job” when he asked the voters to turn their Black Lives Matter shirts inside out, Thompson told CNN.
Poll workers are trained in what voters can and cannot wear — clothing with “Make America Great Again” or “Biden-Harris” wouldn’t be allowed since they’re directly affiliated with candidates and could influence other voters.
Black Lives Matter is not directly affiliated with a political party as the fired poll worker suggested, and Shelby County poll workers are explicitly trained not to discriminate against voters wearing clothing with a message of social justice, Thompson said.
“That is in your handout in training that that is an acceptable thing to wear,” Thompson said.
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” can stand on its own or refer to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, a network of decentralized activists who demonstrate in their communities. The Black Lives Matter movement was created in response to anti-Black racism and police brutality, and supporters calls for sweeping reforms to law enforcement and criminal justice among other systems.
Two other voters were challenged for ‘I Can’t Breathe’ clothing, state rep says
The Memphis polling place where the fired poll worker was stationed is located in Tennessee Rep. Antonio Parkinson’s district, which Parkinson said is an area where a majority of residents are Black.
The congressman said the same polling place has seen previous incidents of voters being told not to wear clothing associated with Black Lives Matter.
“This didn’t even just start,” he told CNN. “It was happening in the primary first.”
Parkinson said that two of his constituents who voted at the same Memphis polling place where the fired poll worker was stationed had been challenged by a male poll worker for wearing items that said “I Can’t Breathe,” a familiar slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement and a phrase uttered by Eric Garner in 2014 shortly before he was fatally choked by police.
The first incident occurred in the primary election in early 2020, when a woman wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt told Parkinson she wasn’t allowed to vote until she turned her shirt inside out, he told CNN.
Another woman, who voted at the same location this month, was wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” mask when a poll worker began to follow her around the voting location, eventually putting a hand on her shoulder. The woman felt she was being followed because of the message on her mask, though she refused to remove it, Parkinson said.
The women, both Black, felt “intimidated” and “threatened” by the poll worker, Parkinson said.
He said he believes the poll worker who was fired is the same worker who challenged the women for their “I Can’t Breathe” shirt and mask, but the Shelby County Election Commission has not publicly identified the poll worker or the voters involved.
Thompson said she didn’t know if the poll worker was involved in the incidents Parkinson described. It’s possible, she said, since the same poll workers tend to work multiple elections.
“If he was accused of that, it never reached the administrative level,” she told CNN. “(If it had), we would’ve done the same thing.”
An improved voting experience
When the election commission received the complaint last week, an operations manager visited the voting site, questioned the poll workers there and dismissed the worker who’d asked voters to turn out their shirts, Thompson said.
Since the incident, the Shelby County Election Commission has reminded workers at all 26 polling places in the county that it’s acceptable for voters to wear clothing with social statements on them as long as they’re not linked to a political candidate, she said.
Voters who believe they’re being unfairly denied the right to vote because of something they’re wearing can call the Election Protection coalition’s hotline (866-OUR-VOTE) or the the Department of Justice’s voting rights hotline (800-253-3931).