How I Got My State Legislature To Listen To Me

Passing a bill into state law is hard work, but there are ways for young people to get involved in the process.

8 mins read

In a world with a multitude of problems to solve, I wanted to do something that could  make a difference for the future of myself and my peers. Thankfully I found, voting rights to be a core issue with the potential to solve many more societal problems. I wanted to get involved. I wanted to continue the work that John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hammer had stepped up to do  before me. So I did.  

During the Spring of 2022, I met another student activist at my school, Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet. He was working with State Senator Heidi Campbell on a bill to increase  student voter turnout and they were looking for students to testify on behalf of the bill. The  prior summer, I had interned with Organize Tennessee, a non-partisan voting rights  organization for which I did research regarding Tennessee elections. I had to search far and  wide to find the information on when and where local elections would be held, so I knew the  many obstacles to casting a ballot in Tennessee. Thus, I was excited to testify in support of The  Tennessee Student Voter Act (TNSVA). 

Art credit: Christine Kim

The act originally sought to expand valid voter identification documents to include IDs  issued by state universities, require high schools to send an email to all seniors regarding voter  registration, and remove the requirement for a newly registered voter to cast a vote in person  for the first time, which disenfranchises young people attending out of state schools. Despite our hard work and extensive research, the bill ultimately failed during the 2022 legislative session. 

Like activists before me, I persisted and developed a plan. During the Fall, I began to  prepare for the coming 2023 legislative session, which would begin in January. I considered the  issues that the legislators had with our prior legislation, researched student voter bills in other  states, including those neighboring Tennessee, and I read academic studies on student voters.  With this knowledge, I outlined new legislation so that it would be ready to go when the session  commenced. I also sought out opportunities to meet with governmental officials before the  legislative session began to develop key support. I met with Mark Goins, Tennessee’s  Coordinator of Elections, who was able to help me ensure the language was watertight and  could be implemented in the real world. 

Once the session began, I worked with the bill’s sponsor, Senator Heidi Campbell, her  legislative assistant, and worked with a coalition of students from around the state to lobby for  the bill. We contacted all the Senators on the State and Local Government Committee to  arrange meetings with them so we could explain our bill and express our reasons for support.  After whipping the votes in the Senate, it passed unanimously.  

Given the bi-cameral nature of the Tennessee legislature, it then had to also pass the House of Representatives. While in the Elections and Campaign Finance Subcommittee, the bill almost failed, as some representatives were concerned about language, which applied to the  entire election code, stating, that those who violated the code could be charged with a misdemeanor. Some legislators interpreted this as meaning that teachers and principals would  be “walked out of school in handcuffs,” if they forgot to send the email. The legal department  assured us that in no scenario would anyone be imprisoned for not sending the email, as the  code includes the word “knowingly.” 

Thankfully it passed that first House subcommittee, and then it continued on to the Local Government Committee, where I was able to testify in favor of the bill and answer  questions posed by the legislators. However, the bill was held up and amended for clarification that violators of the bill would only be faced with a misdemeanor if they did so knowingly. In  the end, it passed out of that Committee and then moved on to the full House, where it passed  almost unanimously. 

Throughout the process, I got to meet with very interesting people and received much support from various legislators and lobbyists. It was a very accessible process as all the  information I needed was on the state legislature’s website or accessible by asking the  sponsor’s amazing legislative assistant. Being an activist takes persistence and hard work, but  anyone can do it. If there’s an issue that you want to solve, propose a bill to a representative.  All you need is an idea that is small, specific, and impactful, plus the courage to reach out to your elected representatives.  

If you don’t have any ideas for bills, you can lobby for or against preexisting legislation, and do not need to register as a lobbyist as long as you do not receive compensation. Many do  not understand what lobbying is, but you can do it simply by emailing legislators who sit on the committees that your chosen bill pertains to and arranging meetings with them. During the  

meeting, come prepared with knowledge on the issue and an easy to digest fact sheet or one  pager, to leave with the legislators. 

It is your right to watch your state legislatures in session and to sit in committees. Even if you are too young to vote, legislation that is passed and legislation that remains unpassed still  affects you. Even if you can’t help decide what gets passed through electing people that  represent your values, you can show up, talk to, and influence those with the power to pass  legislation.

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