Opinion: This Voter Registration Day, check your voter status and get engaged

Staff file photo by Olivia Ross / The League of Women Voters of Chattanooga staffed tables at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 20, 2022. The next election is in March 2024 and will include the presidential primary as well as several local primary races.

Voting is vital to a democracy. It's a reminder that through the political mudslinging that occurs, the people still have the final say. And in 2024, you might as well say we'll be in the middle of a mud storm.

The harsh reality is that the message of democracy and service given by the right to vote mostly falls flat in Tennessee.

In the 2022 midterm elections, only 38% of registered voters in the state exercised their right to vote, the first time the percentage fell below 40% since 2014. That year only 35% of registered voters cast their ballots.

We also live in a state where automatic voter registration is not permitted. Tennessee is one of just 15 states that implements the maximum voter registration deadline window, requiring citizens to register 30 days before an election. Other states have deadlines closer to election day or allow same-day registration.

It is why National Voter Registration Day, which is Tuesday, is so important.

"People should know their [registration] status," Eric Atkins, co-chair of Unity Group of Chattanooga, said Monday in a phone interview. "You might have been purged from the rolls if you haven't voted in a certain number of elections. This is an opportunity to review your status so that when the election comes, you will be ahead of the curve and know how to exercise your right to vote."

Because y'all aren't showing up — when it counts most.

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Tennessee's voting woes

On Sept. 14 Nashvillians voted for former Metro Councilman Freddie O'Connell to be their next mayor. O'Connell grabbed 64% of the vote, while his opponent, former Republican strategist Alice Rolli, snagged 36%. A total of 114,103 people voted in the runoff election. Think about that for a second: In a vibrant, growing capital city with 700,000 people, just 16% of residents elected the new leader.

In Swiftie terms, more people — 212,000 — went through the abyss of Ticketmaster to get a ticket for one of three nights of Taylor Swift's Eras Tour in Nashville. Sure, who wouldn't want to see the spectacle that is a Swift concert, but shouldn't we have the same investment in the future of our cities, counties and state as we do with celebrities?

In Chattanooga, about 27,000 of 114,000 registered voters cast a ballot in the April 2021 mayoral runoff election. That's a voter turnout of about 23%. What does it take for people to care about voting?

Atkins believes that a voter who knows their history is a voter committed to democracy.

"You have to remember historically how much it took to gain the right to vote," Atkins said. "If nothing else, we owe it to those people before us to exercise the right to vote."

When the people see change, Atkins said, they are more likely to engage and participate in voting. And sometimes that change can be difficult to see. For instance, Tennesseans just witnessed Republican state legislators taking a hard pass on enacting anything resembling gun safety in the state.

Voters can be frustrated and feeling their vote doesn't count when they see little to no progress on issues important to them, such as housing affordability and economic inequality, two priorities Atkins says he hears from people the most.

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Overcoming voter suppression

A 2022 Center for Public Integrity report on voter disenfranchisement notes that one in five Black Tennesseans are barred from voting. The Volunteer State is among states with the toughest requirements for felons to regain their voting rights.

In early August, a group of Tennessee voters filed a lawsuit against the state claiming that the Republican supermajority used racial gerrymandering to break up Davidson County into three congressional districts and to split state Senate District 31 in Shelby County. Both areas have a prominent Black population. If they win this lawsuit, it could have a profound impact in the state's political landscape.

"It's very concerning to us, with the rate of gentrification, how it's going to impact and influence minority votes and cause minority vote dilution," Atkins said. "You're seeing a lot of these zones and communities change overnight and that's going directly correlate to a diminished minority voting strength."

Republicans see the power of the minority vote; they are in the game of silencing voters so they don't have to worry about their seats or their supermajority. Let's give them something to worry about.

We have two choices in 2024: We can use our right to vote and soar over the partisan, oppressive politics forced on us by a supermajority, or we can decide to stay home. And end up as roadkill on I-24.

Let's choose the former.