Opinion: Elections bill in Tennessee legislature would make future August ballot a voting bonanza

Staff File Photo By Olivia Ross  / Campaign signs line the roads leading to the Hamilton County Election Commission on July 15, 2022, ahead of the Aug. 4, 2022, county general and state and federal primary elections.
Staff File Photo By Olivia Ross / Campaign signs line the roads leading to the Hamilton County Election Commission on July 15, 2022, ahead of the Aug. 4, 2022, county general and state and federal primary elections.

If the Tennessee House majority leader has his way this legislative session, county elections eventually will shift from May and August to August and November.

Don't panic or start changing your plans just yet.

It will take a constitutional amendment to make the change, but the resolution first must be passed by two consecutive general assemblies and then ratified by a majority of voters in the next gubernatorial election. That would be 2026. If it is approved then, the next scheduled county election with most judicial and civil officers on the ballot is 2030.

From a convenience standpoint, it makes a lot of sense. It would eliminate the May ballot, saving taxpayers money, and would move the primary elections to August, when primary elections for state offices are held. The general election for all state and county offices would be in November.

From an election turnout standpoint, it also makes sense. Voters who skip the county primaries might be more inclined to show up at the polls if they were at the same time as the state primaries, when the elections of state governor, U.S. senator and U.S. representative are also on the ballot.

Sponsor William Lamberth, R-Portland, told the Tennessee Lookout the move could help change the state's reputation for low voter turnouts.

"I would hope more Republicans, Democrats and independents would vote," he said. "We want more folks voting period. Higher turnout, higher participation always leads to ... better elected officials across the board. The more people that vote, the better the folks that are elected are going to reflect the will of the people."

State Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, a co-sponsor of the bill, told this page Friday the change would "create simplicity for the electorate" and "increase voter turnout" and "engagement."

Now to the drawbacks.

While it might increase turnout, it also would massively increase the size of the ballot and test voters' patience at the voting site, especially in years where wordy constitutional amendments are added. In addition, it could strain their ability to absorb information about all the candidates, a problem that seems to be growing with the advent of fake news on social media.

In Hamilton County, one constitutional officer, assessor of property, is not elected in the same year as other constitutional officers but is elected in presidential years. Would that need to be changed?

Further, county school board elections are staggered, with half being elected during the same year as other county officers and half being elected in presidential years like the assessor of property. Would those also change?

And as we wrote last month, Chattanooga City Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod has suggested moving city elections to a similar August-November cycle to coordinate with state and national elections.

"It just makes sense to move us onto a cycle to be with state representatives ... in August," Coonrod told TFP reporter David Floyd. "In the county elections, the state elections and presidential elections, people come out based on the things that are important to them ... so more people are likely to come out to vote."

If you're wondering, turnout for the last three May Hamilton County primaries was 20.9% in 2022 (the first truly contested primary race for Hamilton County mayor), 10.6% in 2018 and 10.9% in 2014. Turnout for the last three August elections was 15.6% in 2022, 26.5% in 2020 and 28.9% in 2018. Turnout for the last three city elections was 24.9% in 2021 (the first closely contested Chattanooga mayor's race since 2005), 19.7% in 2017 and 16.4% in 2013.

Zachary said the turnout disparity is also true for Knoxville, where "confusion is created because city elections are [in] odd years" and "turnout is nonexistent."

However, we toted up a potential August ballot last month that combined a city election with a state primary election and came up with a possible 150 to 200 names. If city elections, county primaries and state primaries all resided on an August ballot, the number of names could rise to above 200. That's a lot.

Of course, if Coonrod's suggested is taken seriously, officials also would need to determine how to alter the terms of City Council members to put them in line with those of county officials.

Earlier this week, the council delayed the councilwoman's proposal for a month.

Our suggestion is for the council to wait until state lawmakers determine what, if anything, they will do with Lamberth's bill. Then the council would have more information about what future August elections would look like.

As to Lamberth's bill itself, we see the advantages but are worried that too many elections would water down the interest in specific elections and be a challenge for voters to have enough information to be truly informed about each office on which they would cast a ballot. But we look forward to the debate to see how details might be ironed out and drawbacks overcome.