“An Unprecedented Disenfranchisement”: How Republicans Are Stripping Nashville of Political Power

A light blue background with two red-toned hands ripping the Nashville city council building in half as if it is paper.

On April 4, 2023, a three-judge panel in Nashville, Tennessee, will hear arguments in a legal challenge to the state’s recently enacted law, House Bill 48, that cuts Nashville’s Metro Council in half. Today, we break down how this retaliatory law — which passed in the wake of the Metro Council’s refusal to host the 2024 Republican National Convention — represents the Republican Party’s latest blitz on our democracy, the two lawsuits attempting to block it and what this challenge means for our democracy. 

The Metro Council is the 40-member legislative body that serves Davidson County, including the state capital of Nashville. 

The Metro Council is the legislative authority of both Nashville, the state’s most populous city, and Davidson County, one of the state’s most diverse counties that surrounds Music City. Initially formed in 1962 by voters, the council currently has 40 members and “a quarter of the council’s seats are held by Black members, half are held by women and five identify as LGBTQ.”

On March 9, 2023, Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed H.B. 48, a law passed by Tennessee’s Republican-led Legislature that forces the Metro Council to reduce its membership by half. 

H.B. 48 has three main components:

  • It caps the number of members that may be elected to a governing body of a metropolitan or municipal government at 20 members. If a council is currently larger than 20 members, then the law requires the reduction to take place “as of the next general metropolitan election after the effective date of this act.” 
  • It states that if a council with more than 20 members does not take action to decrease to 20 members by the next general election, then the terms of the current members will be extended for one year and  special elections will be held to elect council members to three-year terms. 
  • It requires councils with more than 20 members to redraw districts within the next month. Pertaining to Nashville, the map for city council districts must be drawn and approved by the Metro Council by May 1, 2023. 

While the law applies to metropolitan governments throughout the state, Nashville’s Metro Council is the only city government impacted by the law as no other local governments are big enough to qualify.  

Two lawsuits argue that H.B. 48 “wages an unprecedented disenfranchisement of the voters of Metro Nashville.”

After H.B. 48 was enacted, two lawsuits were filed challenging the law — one by the Metro Government and one by community leaders. Both lawsuits, which are now consolidated, make four similar claims: 

  • H.B. 48 violates the Consolidation Clause of Tennessee’s Home Rule Amendment. This amendment vests cities and local governments with the power to change their own charters (a document that outlines how a city is governed) via local referendum and, according to the plaintiffs, limits the power of the Tennessee General Assembly to “unilaterally alter local government structures.” In turn, Metro alleges that H.B. 48’s restructuring of Nashville’s Metro Council “undermines the purpose of local-government consolidation.” 
  • H.B. 48 violates the Local Legislation Clause of Tennessee’s Home Rule Amendment because it “imposes this requirement on Metro Nashville alone without the mandatory local approval language.”
  • H.B. 48 violates the term-limit provision of the Tennessee Constitution by “setting a term of office for Metro Nashville Councilmembers outside the mandatory four-year term for county legislators.”
  • H.B. 48 violates a provision of the Tennessee Constitution that outlines the size of local governments and “exempts consolidated governments from the maximum limit on the size of county legislative bodies, thereby preempting any legislative effort to apply a similar or lower cap on Metro Nashville’s legislative body size.”

Both lawsuits make a clear argument that Nashville’s Metro Council was the only council in the state targeted by this legislation. The law’s state House sponsor, William Lamberth (R), addressed the reach of the law and stated:

Nashville is the only one I’ve heard from, so at this point I’m going to assume they’re the only one that’s going to have to shrink down to twenty, but there may be others for all I know.

Similarly, state Senate sponsor Bo Watson (R) claimed:

My understanding is that the only county elections affected by this particular piece of legislation would be Davidson County.

The plaintiffs conclude that “[n]ot only does the Metro Council Reduction Act force Metro Nashville to restructure its legislative body, but it does so on a timeline that is impracticable, fails to provide time for sufficient community input and deliberation, and is sure to cause chaos in the election machinery, as well as confusion and distrust among voters.” Both sets of plaintiffs request that H.B. 48 be temporarily and permanently blocked. Today, a Tennessee court will hear arguments from the parties to determine if this request should be granted in line with Tennessee law.  

Not only is H.B. 48 potentially unconstitutional, but reducing the size of the council could also roll back decades of progress by directly targeting minority voters. 

Delishia Porterfield, chair of the Metro Council’s Minority Caucus, wrote in the Tennessean that “one-quarter of the seats are held by Black officials — on par with a city that is roughly 25% African American. For the first time in our city’s history, we have both a first and second generation immigrant, our first Latina council member, as well as our first Muslim council member. Downsizing the council would roll back gains in women and minority representation.” 

CASE PAGE Tennessee Nashville Metro Council Reduction Challenge (Metro Nashville)

H.B. 48 is the latest law that realizes the Tennessee GOP’s goal of stripping power from voters generally. Republicans in Tennessee have relentlessly gerrymandered districts, disenfranchised voters at appalling rates and are now disempowering its most populous city’s ability to self-govern. After the release of 2020 census data, Republicans implemented a congressional map that divided Davidson County into three separate districts, thereby making a once historically blue seat a solidly Republican seat. Tennessee’s state House and Senate maps are currently being challenged in court as voters allege that Republicans drew the districts to “ensure maximum partisan advantage for the incumbent Republican supermajority.” According to the Sentencing Project, Tennessee “denies the right to vote to more people with a felony conviction than 49 other states” and has “the country’s highest rate of disenfranchisement for both Black and Latinx Americans.” Now, Republican legislators are attempting to send Nashville’s Metro Council back decades. 

Disempowering Nashville is just one page in the Republican Party’s coordinated playbook to strip power away from blue cities in red states. 

Unfortunately, what’s happening in Nashville — state officials brazenly stripping local autonomous jurisdictions of their power as a way to strip voters in those jurisdictions of their power — is part of a much broader and darker emerging trend led by Republicans across the country. Already this year, we have seen countless Republican-led power grabs including in Mississippi, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. Republicans in the Mississippi Legislature passed separate state House and Senate bills that would create a new, unelected court system in the state capital of Jackson — a city that is over 80% Black — that would effectively be unaccountable to Black voters. Republicans in the North Carolina Legislature introduced House Bill 376, a bill that would amend the state constitution to end the principle of one person, one vote in the state Senate — a move that would drastically reduce the representation of urban and suburban voters in the state Senate and strip voters in cities who tend to be more racially and ethnically diverse. This trend is not unique to state legislatures; Republicans successfully led an effort to strip Washington, D.C., voters of their representation under the Home Rule Act earlier this year. 

In 2022, courts overwhelmingly sided with voters when Republican legislators attempted attacks on the very foundations of our democracy. In this case, however, the power play continues even at the court level. The lawsuits over Nashville’s Metro Council were filed in the Nashville Chancery Court, which is a state trial court. However, because of a 2021 rule regarding state constitutional challenges, the consolidated lawsuit will not be heard by judges of this trial court (who were all elected in Democratic primaries). Instead, it will be heard by a panel of three trial court judges, two of whom were chosen by the majority-Republican Tennessee Supreme Court. The panel hearing the challenge to H.B. 48 is composed of one judge who ran in a Democratic primary, one who ran in a nonpartisan election and one who ran in a Republican primary. Hopefully, these judges will put aside partisanship and see H.B. 48 for what it is — a true attack on democracy — and do everything in their power to stop it.