Tennessee wants nice things, too

May 22, 2020 10:10 am
(Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Tennessee needs nice things, too

Recently, I sat in on a virtual panel discussion hosted by ThinkTennessee, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that conducts research on civic and economic opportunity. The topic? Voting by mail. 

You’ve probably already heard discussion about voting by mail, as it’s become a hot item nationally and with good reason. Not only are we in a presidential election cycle, which typically drives voter turnout to greater levels than local or state elections but we are also experiencing a once in a century pandemic. 

For an example of how these two events can collide with poor results, let’s turn to Wisconsin.

The Democratic governor of Wisconsin, Tony Evers, tried to change the April 7 presidential primary election so it could be conducted entirely by mail: This was, you may remember, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis and most of the country had some sort of ‘stay at home’ order in place. 

Evers was overruled by the conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court and the GOP-led legislature. The result was fewer polling places – Milwaukee dropped from the usual 180 to only five – and as a result, hours-long waits to vote. While 52 people who either worked polls or voted that day later contracted COVID-19, the research isn’t conclusive on how the election factored into the spread of the illness. 

But we have a lot of information that is conclusive on why Tennessee should extend mail-in voting. 

We are in the great minority of states that have taken no steps to do so. According to ThinkTennessee, 34 of 50 states already allow no-excuses absentee voting, or vote by mail. An additional 11 have expanded options to do so just for the 2020 election year due to our unusual circumstances – and given how little scientists still know about COVID-19, none of us know what the next few months will look like. 

In Tennessee, only voters over the age of 60 have the option of no-excuses absentee voting. That has a number of ramifications: In our Thursday edition, Sekou Franklin, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee on this topic, detailed his father’s health problems. As his father’s caretaker, Franklin, who is not yet 60, can only vote in person and risk bringing COVID home to his father or he can not vote. Those are his options. 

And, while the over 60 crowd can vote by mail, they are also the citizens most likely to work polling locations. The primary reason Milwaukee only had five polling sites open was the city’s inability to staff them with pollworkers. There’s no reason to assume older poll workers in Tennessee will behave any differently.

Pie chart courtesy of ThinkTennessee.
Pie chart courtesy of ThinkTennessee.

And there’s no good reason to NOT expand voting options, if only for this year. The arguments most offered don’t stand up to analysis. 

You’ll hear Tennessee will have to pay more to implement mail-in voting than traditional in-person voting. As it happens, the state has millions of dollars available expressly to be used to make new investments in elections. 

You are likely to hear mail-in voting benefits Democrats to the exclusion of Republicans. There’s no proof to support this claim and the Brennan Center, a non-partisan center for law and justice, bluntly states in a report “There is little reason to believe mail ballots would uniformly help Democrats in November.”

Some parties will tell you it’s not the American way and it can’t be done. Try telling that to the millions of American troops who have voted by absentee ballot for umpteen years. 

Maybe I’m selling you too hard. You may already agree. But the Tennessee General Assembly does not, and that august body will reconvene June 1. At present, there are no bills related to the pandemic on the legislative calendar, so clearly, there are no plans to expand our voting options this year.

As I was signing off on the ThinkTennessee seminar I referenced at the outset of this column, I overheard someone say in the background, “Tennessee can’t have nice things” – like more control over how we vote. 

We want nice things, too, or at least the one 45 other states have.


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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.