Ott, Gould and DiIanni: Tennessee voter turnout improves, but not enough

Ron Huffer fills out his ballot as a line of people wait their chance to vote in the background during early voting Wednesday, October 17, 2018 at Collegedale City Hall in Collegedale, Tennessee. While the wait wasn't long, there was a line for most of the morning.

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Go to to read the report, “America Goes to the Polls 2018,” prepared by Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project.

This month is Women's History Month in the United States, and we Tennesseans have much to celebrate.

photo Marian Ott
photo Debra Gould
photo Diane DiIanni

We celebrate Tennessee's role in being the state that made the "perfect 36" required for the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett dedicated the 2019-20 Blue Book to the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment in a tribute to this accomplishment.

As League of Women Voters of Tennessee members, we are especially proud because the League is the successor organization to the Tennessee suffragists who worked tirelessly to pass the 19th Amendment. We commend Secretary Hargett for recognizing the significant role Tennessee played in our nation in guaranteeing all women the right to vote.

Notwithstanding our state's proud history, however, in 2016 Tennessee was ranked 48th in the nation for voter turnout among all states and the District of Columbia. The Volunteer State was almost dead last!

But here is more good news. According to the recently released report "America Goes to the Polls 2018," prepared by Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project, in 2018 Tennessee moved up in the rankings, from 48th to 45th place. Tennessee voter turnout for the 2018 midterm elections was more than 18 percentage points higher than in 2014. That means more of us are playing a role in selecting our leaders.

Yet we believe that even 45th place is not good enough for Tennessee. As Tennesseans, we know we can do better - our democracy depends on it. There is more work to be done.

Voter turnout varies widely from state to state. While it is true that voters are more engaged in highly competitive state and local races, that factor does not explain everything. The data analysis of this national report points to the more important factors of election policies that made it harder or easier to vote. In Tennessee, the 2017 implementation of online voter registration has been very successful and is likely a contributing factor to the huge increase in voter turnout in Tennessee.

But let's not stop there. We should consider additional policy changes to make it easier to vote that have a proven track record of success in other states. States with higher rates of voter turnout have adopted policies that include same day registration, automatic voter registration, and easy access to absentee ballots or other vote at home methods.

Automatic voter registration makes registration at motor vehicle and other government agencies an opt-out rather than an opt-in activity. Seventeen states have AVR, including Georgia, which, as a result, reported a tripling of voter registrations from driver services and record voter turnout. Officials report benefits such as applications processed more quickly and efficiently, fewer election day complaints about voters having to go vote where they were formerly registered, fewer provisional ballots and cost savings.

The League of Women Voters commends Tennessee election officials for recent implementation of online voter registration and the thoughtful implementation of Election Day Convenience Vote Centers.

We will continue to advocate for additional improvements so that Tennessee can move from the bottom 10 to the top 10 in participation in our democracy.

Marian Ott is president of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee; Debra Gould is vice president/advocacy chairwoman; and Diane DiIanni is advocacy co-chairwoman.