Few competitive races, apathy, lack of investment: the conundrum of low voter participation

October 27, 2022 6:00 am
(Photo: Mario Tamo/Getty Images)

(Photo: Mario Tamo/Getty Images)

Last week, the Tennessee Lookout published a story about voter registration figures after writer Kathy Carlson contacted all 95 of Tennessee’s county election administrators. 

Carlson personally spoke to at least a dozen administrators, including in the state’s three biggest counties — Shelby, Davidson, and Knox — and suburban ones like Williamson, which typically posts the highest percentage of voter turnout in Tennessee. 

The responses were universal: There’s been no groundswell of new voters registering in 2022.

“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.”

The Tennessee Secretary of State’s office reported about 115,000 people have registered to vote in the last 11 months, for an approximate increase of 2.6% over total registration. 

Both anecdotally and statistically, there’s an idea that women, motivated by the June 24 U.S. Supreme Court decision to reverse the federal protections for abortion in Roe v. Wade, would register in large numbers.

The New York Times reported in August that more than 70% of newly registered voters in Kansas this year are women, which doubtless played a key role in the defeat of a constitutional amendment that would have banned abortion there.

But in Tennessee, women have registered this year in only marginally higher numbers than men, and Tennessee habitually ranks as one of the states with the lowest percentage of voter participation. 

There’s no single cause for either low voter registration or low turnout. 

Democratic activists like to say Tennessee “isn’t a red state, it’s a non-voting state.” 

To some extent, says Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, that’s valid. 

“If people ages 18-40 vote, the entire political landscape would change,” Clemmons says, adding that elected officials — particularly those without competitive elections — have a duty to help drive turnout. 

“It’s our job to make (young voters) understand the role we play so they feel invested and want to vote.” 

Clemmons, who does not have an opponent in this year’s election, is spending less time in traditional campaign activities and more playing the long game. He says his time is spent in what he views as traditionally underrepresented parts of his district, the lines of which changed with the recent redistricting process. Clemmons’ district formerly captured portions of affluent West Nashville and the area around Belmont University; now, the district includes an immigrant-dense part of South Nashville. 

“I went from the area with the highest turnout to one with some of the lowest turnout in the area,” he said. “I’m investing in the district so the people there feel like they have something to invest in.”

Immigrants in the area, he pointed out, may be hesitant to register to vote out of caution they may be targeted by government agencies. 

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, frequently post photos stumping for other lawmakers and candidates. Here, he speaks at a house party for Rep. John Gillespie, R-Memphis. (Photo: Twitter)
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, frequently post photos stumping for other lawmakers and candidates. Here, he speaks at a house party for Rep. John Gillespie, R-Memphis. (Photo: Twitter)

Rep. Vincent Dixie of Nashville, Democratic House Caucus chair, is more pointed in his observations on voter turnout. 

“People are apathetic in Tennessee about politics in general, because they know (the Republican supermajority) is going to do what they’re going to do,” Dixie says. “People are just trying to keep food on their tables, keep a roof over their heads.” 

Dixie’s GOP counterpart, House Republican Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison, has posted videos on social media of himself with candidates like Dia Hart, who is running against Nashville Democratic Rep. Jason Powell. Other members of the Republican caucus, including Speaker Cameron Sexton, publish photos of themselves at fundraising events for their fellow members. 

Several Democratic activists have complained, on background, that judging from the disparity in social media posts, Democratic leaders haven’t done enough to drive registration or voter turnout, nor are incumbents in safe seats hitting the road to help candidates or colleagues in tough fights.z

“Why,” questioned one operative, “aren’t all the Democratic state representatives in Knoxville helping Gloria?” referring to Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is in a competitive race.

Dixie says it’s not his role as caucus chair to be forward-facing. 

“I stay behind the scenes and I don’t interject myself into (candidates’) campaigns,” he says. “My job is to make sure they have a good team, good infrastructure and the money to get their message out.” 

That’s to say nothing of the fact Democrats have been in the legislative minority for more than a decade now, and the Republican Party controls many factors that play into voter turnout, including approval of polling locations. County election commissions statewide consist of five members: Three Republicans and two Democrats each. Election administrators make recommendations on polls and commissions approve them.

People are apathetic in Tennessee about politics in general, because they know (the Republican supermajority) is going to do what they’re going to do.

– Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville

Metro Nashville/Davidson County, Tennessee’s capital city and home to roughly 700,000 people, opens only one early vote location for the first week of the early voting period. Democratic activists have questioned whether voter suppression is at work by the GOP-dominated election commission that approved one polling place for the October 19-24 period.

Jeff Roberts, Davidson County Administrator of Elections, said there’s no conspiracy. 

Election staffs base the number of early vote polls open on expected turnout for a particular election. The 2018 election had two high profile races on the ballot: An open governor’s seat featuring former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and now-Gov. Bill Lee, as well as one of the most heated U.S. Senate elections in the country, the matchup between former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and then-U.S. Rep. and now Sen. Marsha Blackburn. 

In the August 2018 primary, 114,000 Davidson County residents voted. In August 2022, 70,000 voted — a mere 2% more than in August 2014, which featured a similar ballot to this year. 

Few competitive races yield lower turnout. Incumbents in noncompetitive races may lay low. 

All of this is to say that yes, Tennessee still holds down the bottom tier of states for voter registration and turnout, but there’s no clear cut or simple solution. It may be true that Republicans, holding power, do not want to encourage voters other than their base, but it may also be true Democratic officials could do more to whip up turnout on their side. 

The late President John Kennedy gets credit for saying “Victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.” Tennessee’s pathetic electoral turnout constitutes a defeat for civic participation — but it has many fathers.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.