Nashville voters flocked to the polls on Wednesday, in some cases standing in long, socially-distanced lines for hours on the first day of early voting.
Tennessee isn’t exactly a battleground state, with President Donald Trump widely expected to safely win its 11 electoral votes. Republican candidate Bill Hagerty is also viewed as the decisive favorite in the U.S. Senate race against Marquita Bradshaw.
But, voters showed up anyway. Davidson County Election Commission Administrator Jeff Roberts announced that 12,899 people early voted, eclipsing voter turnout from the first day of early voting in 2016 when 12,303 people went to the polls.
Voters lined up before the polls opened. At the Belle Meade City Hall early vote site, it took over two hours for voters there first thing in the morning to cast their ballots. Voters stood in line at least six feet apart from each other, and other safety measures such as masks and health screenings by poll workers were also utilized.
At the Southeast Library in Antioch, about 200 voters lined up mid-day on the first day of early voting. Among them was 71-year old Patricia Brown who initially answered a question of what motivated her to vote by emphasizing the importance of the right to vote among all citizens, but especially African-Americans.
“It’s very important for all of us,” she said after reaching the library’s front doors after about 30 minutes of standing in line outside. An additional line once inside the building off Bell Road was averaging about 45 minutes just after 1 p.m.
But pressed to cite specific issues or candidates, Brown said President Donald Trump is the first and only motivation to vote this year.
“It’s just him,” she said. “He’s got to go. It’s just the president. I think he’s totally insane.”
Charlane Oliver, the co-executive director of the Tennessee Equity Alliance, a nonpartisan nonprofit that encourages voter participation, said she was not surprised by long lines and record numbers.
“That’s very encouraging. I’m very excited,” Oliver said, before pointing out that long wait times to vote can also be a negative. “I mean it’s a double-edged sword when you hear about long lines and turnout. On one hand, it’s an indication that people are motivated and enthusiastic about voting. But, on the other hand it’s also an indication in black communities that people have to wait longer, it’s designed not to be run well so that people will be discouraged and it suppresses our vote.”
The very manner in which people vote was the subject of intense litigation, with voting rights groups, including the Equity Alliance, suing the state to increase voters’ ability to request absentee ballots. For the August primary, fear of COVID-19 was a justified reason to ask for an absentee ballot.
But, the lawsuit that allowed for that reason to vote by mail was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on appeal. Voters with the virus or with certain pre-existing conditions making them vulnerable to COVID-19, in addition to anyone caring for those groups of people, were allowed to vote by mail due to the pandemic.
Darren Dantrevil, 52, said he votes early in every election but this year the main difference was longer lines. Dantrevil, who said he was a disabled veteran receiving disability benefits who works part time in airport parking lots, scooted a chair forward in a long line outside the library, where voters stood, mostly masked, several feet apart. Like every year, Dantrevil said, he will be voting strictly Democratic.
Dantrevil said he was concerned about preserving insurance for individuals with pre-existing conditions. He was also concerned about voter suppression in this election year, worried of how the U.S. Supreme Court could rule if the election results are disputed.
“Republicans will have a 6-3 majority in the Supreme Court,” he said. “I think voter suppression is a real thing. At this point I think it’s okay if Biden stacks the Supreme Court.”
He said he was hopeful this year that Biden had a shot at winning.
“If there’s one reason the Democrats have a shot this year, it’s COVID and its effect on the economy,” Dantrevil said. “Democrats have a better shot this year than in 2016.”
Oliver added that although Tennessee is not a battleground state, she believes voters are fired up. The Equity Alliance used the hashtag #votingislit on social media, and her organization made over 70,000 voter contacts, sent over 35,000 text messages and employed 115 volunteers to do phone banks and encourage people to vote.
“That’s why we do the work at the Equity Alliance to make the point that it’s not just about the president and it’s not just about voting every four years,” Oliver said. “The elections most important to you are the down ballot races. We have a legislature that could be very different, and redistricting, which is going to have a very large effect, comes next year.”