Tennessee’s voter registration numbers for midterm show little to no uptick

By: - October 18, 2022 6:02 am
A sign reminds voters they need photo ID to vote at polling station at Hillsboro Presbyterian Church on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018 in Nashville. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A sign reminds voters they need photo ID to vote at polling station at Hillsboro Presbyterian Church on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018 in Nashville. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Interviews with Tennessee election administrators show that people are registering to vote at roughly the same pace or slightly lower levels than previous years, a hint that voter turnout in this year’s midterm elections will be low.

And there’s little sign that the June 24 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Roe v. Wade case, which found a right under the U.S. Constitution for women to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy, has spurred high numbers of women to register to vote in Tennessee. 

Statewide, more than 4.54 million were registered to vote as of Oct. 4, Julia Bruck, director of communications with the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, said in an email. That’s an increase of about 115,000 or 2.6% over total registration for the six months that ended on Nov. 30, 2021.

Lack of interest in voter registration denotes a lack of interest in voting, said Kent Syler, professor of political science and public policy at Middle Tennessee State University.

In years when there were highly contested elections, people often lined up outside election commission offices as the registration approached to make sure they were registered to vote, Syler said. Voters these days have lots of choices in how to register, but election administrators contacted for this article said they haven’t seen much of an uptick of interest in registering this year, in person or otherwise.

Voter registration since the August primary has been “relatively quiet,” said Wilson County Administrator of Elections Tammy Smith. Registration often picks up as the deadline for registration approaches, she said. This year the uptick “started later than normal,” in the last two weeks before the deadline.

There’s little sign that the June 24 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Roe v. Wade case has spurred an uptick in Tennessee’s voter registration numbers and according to some county election administrators, registration may be slightly lower than previous years. 

One administrator of elections, Peg Hamlett of Carroll County, said registration between the August primary and deadline for the November elections was up slightly, from 246 in 2018 to 298 this year. But Nathan Foster, assistant administrator of elections in Hamilton County, said overall registrations were down about 20% compared with four years ago.

In Knox County, “voter registration has been steady throughout 2022. Seems about normal for a midterm year,” Administrator of Elections Chris Davis said in an email. He noted that more women than men have registered in every month in 2022. So far in 2022, just over 16,000 people registered to vote in Knox County, with 52.4% female and 47.6% male, Davis said in the email.

Williamson County Administrator of Elections Chad Gray said that from June 24-Oct. 5, women accounted for 55.3% of new registrations in the county, with 3,254 women registering. Men made up 44.6% of new registrants. Total registrations for the county are just over 188,000; 53% of voters are female and 47% male. 

“Our sense is that it is much slower,” Shelby County Administrator of Elections Linda Phillips said in an email.  “Typically, on the last day of registration, we’ll have lines of people who want to register.  (We) didn’t have that this year.”

She said that in 2020, Shelby County processed 9,913 online registrations in the 10 days leading up to the registration deadline. “In 2022, we processed 2,187 on-line registrations.”

She and other election administrators said most people these days register to vote online or through the Tennessee Department of Safety’s motor vehicles division, often when they apply for or renew driver’s licenses.

For this article, Tennessee’s 95 county election administrators were contacted by email and asked about registration between the August primary elections and the Oct. 11 registration deadline. Twelve administrators responded either to the email or in follow-up telephone calls. 

Most administrators said they’ve seen no big changes in voter registration patterns compared with previous midterm election years; some said registration this year has been slower than in previous years. 

Our sense is that it is much slower. Typically, on the last day of registration, we’ll have lines of people who want to register. (We) didn’t have that this year.

– Linda Phillps, Shelby County Administrator of Elections

Three administrators — in Robertson, Williamson and Wilson counties — specifically mentioned there are few contested elections in their county and wondered whether that was affecting interest in the midterms.

Syler mentioned this as well, saying there are only a handful of competitive races in Tennessee this year. 

According to the political information website Ballotpedia, seven Republicans are running for state Senate seats without Democratic opposition; two Democrats are running for state Senate without Republican opposition. That’s nine out of 17 state Senate races – 53% – in which one party’s candidate is running unopposed by the other major party, although independent candidates may be running in some races.”

The candidate list for the Tennessee House shows a similar situation. Forty-six Republicans are running without Democratic opposition; 18 Democrats face no Republican opposition. That’s 64.6% of state House seats in which one party faces no competition from the other major party, although independent candidates may be running.

Both self-gerrymandering, in which people choose to live in majority Democratic or Republican counties, and legislative gerrymandering have contributed to noncompetitive political races, Syler said. Noncompetitive races limit the talent pool of people choosing to run for office. “No one wants to get into a race with no chance of winning,” he said.

Election administrators in Williamson and Davidson counties likened this year’s midterm elections to those in 2014. That year, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam was seeking re-election, as was incumbent U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, also a Republican. Both won handily. Also in 2014, voters decided that nothing in Tennessee’s constitution secured or protected a right to abortion and that the matter was up to the state legislature. The vote was 729,163 votes to 657,192. Turnout in the November 2014 election was about 36%.

In contrast, Tennessee’s 2018 midterm elections included two highly contested statewide races. An open governor’s race pitted Republican newcomer Bill Lee against two-term Democratic Nashville mayor Karl Dean. In an open race for U.S. Senate, former two-term Democratic governor Phil Bredesen ran against U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican. Both Republicans won and turnout was about 54.5%.

As November’s elections draw nearer, administrators are keeping an eye on voter participation predictions, poll worker training, security and the weather. 

“We want to make sure we are prepared for the election,” Foster said.

“Our goal is for a smooth running day with steady voter participation,” Davidson County Administrator of Elections Jeff Roberts said in an email.  “Ultimately, we want all voters to have confidence that their vote impacted the results of the election.”

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Kathy Carlson
Kathy Carlson

Kathy Carlson is a veteran newspaper reporter and copy editor, with stints at the Nashville Banner and Tennessean. At the Tennessean, she worked on the police and business beats. She later wrote about employment law for M. Lee Smith Publishers. 1 For the past several years, she has been a freelance journalist. As a contributor to the Nashville Ledger, she has written about COVID-19, public health, education, voting during the pandemic, and a variety of governmental, legal and policy issues. Several ofher Ledger articles have received first-prize recognition 2 in Tennessee Press Association annual competitions. She will be working as a volunteer poll watcher with Organize Tennessee on Thursday.