Chattanooga groups urge voters to register, check status

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett speaks Tuesday at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett speaks Tuesday at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.


Tuesday was National Voter Registration Day, and local Chattanooga groups are urging residents to make sure they're ready to vote.

The next round of elections in Tennessee will come in March, when residents will vote in presidential and local primary elections.

To vote in those elections, Tennesseans need to be registered by Feb. 5, or 30 days ahead of time.

Residents can check their registration status online, and can register through the secretary of state's website.

"People need to be aware of their voter status, and their locations, and get all the voter information that they can so there won't be any confusion during the election cycle," Eric Atkins, of the Unity Group of Chattanooga, said by phone.

The Unity Group is calling for extended early voting and voting on Sundays to increase access to the polls, the group said in a release this week.

The group also criticized the state's process for restoring voting rights for people convicted of felonies, which became more difficult earlier this year based on new guidance from state Elections Coordinator Mark Goins.

More than 470,000 people in Tennessee can't vote because of a felony conviction — the second-highest rate in the nation, according to the Campaign Legal Center, which filed suit over the state's policies in 2020. Around 1 in 5 Black Tennesseeans are blocked from voting, the highest rate in the United States.

 

(READ MORE: Advocates say restoring voting rights for past felons in Tennessee is a discouraging maze)

"We ought to be creating more access to the ballot, not creating more barriers," Atkins said.

At a voter registration event at East Lake Park on Tuesday, volunteers offered assistance to those looking to restore their voting rights.

The event, organized by Chattanoogans in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence, or CALEB, aimed to register between 50 to 70 new voters, CALEB Field Director Erin Kellam said by phone.

The group has been setting up at other events, going door to door and sending mailers to encourage people to register to vote all year, Kellam said, and has logged about 10 to 15 new voters so far. The group's focus is on county districts where school board seats are up for grabs next year, as part of an effort to implement restorative practices in schools as an alternative to expulsion or suspension.

"People see the federal elections and see how we can't really make a change," Kellam said. "The biggest thing that we need to implement into our community is, we can affect the local elections — our city council, county commission, school board. All of those officials actually determine how our money in the community is going to be used, and how that is going to affect each community member."

(READ MORE: City Council set to consider changes Chattanooga election schedule, term limits)

CALEB chose to hold its event in East Lake Park in hopes of reaching underrepresented voters in that area, including Chattanooga's growing Spanish-speaking population, Kellam said.

"Whether or not the parents can register, hopefully, we can start talking to the kids about how important it is to vote, and that way when they become registration age, we can get them on board," Kellam said.

Unlike presidential elections, local races are based on popular votes — so, Kellam said, they can be won by just one vote.

In 2022, 38% of registered voters in Tennessee voted in the midterm elections, the first turnout below 40% since 2014, according to the Secretary of State's Office. In 2021, 23% of Chattanooga voters cast a vote in a runoff election for mayor, according to figures from the Hamilton County Election Commission.

As of December, around 70% of those eligible were registered to vote in Hamilton County, according to state data.

Secretary of State Tre Hargett, speaking at a Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday morning, said he believes Tennessee has a relatively low voter turnout because its residents are generally happy with the direction of the state. He cited the state's investments in K-12 and higher education and a healthy economy.

(READ MORE: Most Chattanooga voters think U.S. is headed in the wrong direction)

"When people are confident in how things are going, they don't feel the need to go speak out," Hargett said in an interview after the event. "People vote because someone in their sphere of influence encourages them to, but they also go to vote because they are really for or against something."

It's typically harder to reach voters between the ages of 18 and 25, Hargett said Tuesday. His office is holding a competition between Tennessee colleges and universities in an effort to encourage schools to promote voter registration on their campuses.

"We're going to have an election with or without you," Hargett said he recently told one woman on Motlow State Community College's campus.

Concerns over the integrity of elections have trickled down to state and local races, Hargett said, and have been made worse by social media. In 2022, the Hamilton County Election Commission received more than 100 records requests related to voter records, around four times as many as in other years, according to officials.

"We have people out there who I know will get a message from someone who has a kitten for a profile picture and 79 followers, and they'll take that as the gospel instead of getting online, looking at our site, our feed, to get real information," Hargett said.

Tennessee's elections are secured by its system of bipartisan boards that check each other throughout the vote collection and counting process, Hargett said.

Contact Ellen Gerst at egerst@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6319.


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