Shanna Singh Hughey

Democracy Cohort
Voting Rights Advocate

Shanna Singh Hughey is creating a playbook to keep democracy alive and thriving in America’s so-called “red states.”

Shanna Singh Hughey’s career in public service started at the federal level, as one of the youngest press secretaries in the Senate and later as a lawyer on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. But when life brought her to Nashville, Tennessee, she realized she could play a greater role. “Federal leaders draw the outlines of American democracy — state and local officials color them in,” she says. As advisor to Mayor Karl Dean, she worked to make Nashville’s city government accessible to rapidly growing immigrant communities. She founded the South’s first Mayor’s Office of New Americans, as well as a first-in-the-South partnership with the federal government to use libraries as hubs for citizenship information.

She was frustrated, however, by the state legislature’s power to thwart city efforts. So she launched ThinkTennessee, a think tank pushing to protect and expand voting rights and working to change systems that trap Tennesseans in poverty.

The promise of American democracy is only fulfilled when voters in one state have the same access to the ballot box as voters in the next state over. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In Tennessee, for example, most election machines can’t be audited, redistricting is a black box, and one in five Black people can’t vote due to the nation’s most complex voter-restoration system. State legislators, meanwhile, have little incentive to fix these problems.

As an Emerson Collective Fellow, Shanna will create a manual called the Red State Democracy Protection Playbook, giving a menu of options for defending state democracies and case studies that translate over state boundaries. By highlighting the unexpected levers of power that exist outside state legislatures and examining the benefits and risks of taking fights to the courts, it will help state-based actors hone their strategies, while clarifying for national leaders what’s needed most in the states that receive the least attention.