Nearing Election Day, the thrill is gone

With early voting totals down 24% from 2018, Tennesseans show ennui towards the election process.

August 1, 2022 5:29 pm
Voters stand in line on the first day of early voting in Nashville at Casa Azafran. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Voters stand in line on the first day of General Election 2020 early voting in Nashville at Casa Azafran. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Election Day used to feel like Christmas Day to me. 

As far back as I can remember, the day was an exciting one. My parents voted religiously, my dad in the brief window between arriving home from work and the 7 p.m. poll closures. 

Mom, who didn’t work in my early childhood years, had no choice but to take me with her to vote at what was then one of the few, if not the only, polling locations in Williamson County — the antebellum county courthouse, with enormous Doric columns and white painted brick. 

The occasion was special and ceremonial, in the way anything out of the ordinary is when one is young, and my mother — never one to do anything halfway — would attire herself accordingly in a dress, heels and her omnipresent “Honeybee Pink” shade of lipstick. 

Once inside the old school voting booths, with heavy canvas curtains that were closed via lever, Mom would make her selections and point to the appropriate place so I could pull the little levers and “vote.” 

Later, when she became an elected official, the family gathered around our big radio on Election Night to listen to results with anticipation, feeling confident — but still a bit nervous — that Mom would win.

No surprise, then, that I volunteered for my first campaign at the age of 14, donning a fake straw boater and handing out bumper stickers in the parking lot of Kroger to help a man from our church who was running for the Tennessee General Assembly. He ran as a Republican, an unusual occurrence in 1970s Tennessee and he ran to replace a Democrat, but no matter: As tuned in as I was for a kid, I don’t remember much talk of partisan politics even among the adults in my family, who split between the two major parties. 

Another Election Day approaches, the umpteenth I’ve worked or covered over the lat 35 years, but as the great blues artist B.B. King sang, the thrill is gone. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who feels ennui about elections these days, as indicated by statewide early voter turnout almost a quarter lower than in 2018, the last midterm election year. 

I went straight from college to a 1987 congressional campaign in Nashville, a special election between Bob Clement, who holds the record for the youngest person elected to statewide office in Tennessee and son of Gov. Frank Clement, political rookie Phil Bredesen, trailblazer Jane Eskind and civil rights leader Walter Searcy. 

The compressed timeline made for a wild race, with veteran Democrats supporting Clement, Bredesen pouring personal money into his bid, lawsuits filed against candidates and allegations of tapped phones tossed. It introduced me to components of old-school elections like “walking around money”  — hopefully a thing of the past  — in which campaign officials gave cash to volunteers to drive voters to the polls. 

With early voting a practice yet to be introduced, the race came down to a cliffhanger on primary night between Clement and Bredesen, with the outcome riding on less than 4,000 votes in a district comprised of half a million eligible voters.

I rehash this now as we approach another primary Election Day, the umpteenth I’ve worked or written about over the last 35 years. But, as the great blues artist B.B. King sang, the thrill is gone, and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels ennui about elections these days. 

Ennui is defined as a feeling of listlessness or dissatisfaction and that seems like a good way to describe Tennessee’s dismal voter turnout this year. The Volunteer State never sets records for participation, ranking near the bottom of the 50 states in almost every metric measured for election participation, but this year, voting is particularly tepid. 

My home, Williamson County, is usually a standout in voting numbers, but this year not so much. Statewide, early voting totals are down almost 24% from the 2018 early vote period. In Williamson, early voting is only down by just over 8% but in Davidson, which features two highly competitive legislative primary races, turnout is down a whopping 39%.

With the election still a few days away and the general election three months in the future, thorough analysis is on hold. But speaking for many registered voters to whom I talk, a few factors play into the lack of enthusiasm. 

One of those is a scarcity of options on ballots and a feeling of fatalism. As Lucas Brooks reported for the Lookout in July, almost half — 45 of 99 — State House seats don’t have Democrats running. While it may be understandable Democrats lack the appetite for taking on campaigns in a state that went for former President Donald Trump twice by more than 61%, voters are being hurt.  

Negative campaigning isn’t new and political pros say it’s almost impossible to win a hotly-contested primary without “going negative,” but boy, the last few years of political hostility and the proliferation of independent expenditure PACS and the resulting mud have burned out the most avid political junkies. Witness the Republican primary in Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District, in which one candidate has been falsely accused of failing to pay taxes and blame is laid solely on another for giving undocumented immigrants the right to vote — while tying that vote to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

It’s foul. 

I voted early, as I customarily do these days, but I did so with no enthusiasm. The occasion didn’t feel like a holiday and I didn’t wear makeup as I schlepped to the polls. I miss the days when elections and the act of voting were exciting. But still, I voted. And Tennesseans need to do the same. 

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Holly McCall
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. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. 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.