NASHVILLE — Tennessee is among the worst states in the country when it comes to political engagement, according to a new study that ranks the Volunteer State as the sixth least engaged.
In its assessment, WalletHub placed Tennessee, where early voting began Wednesday for the Nov. 3 presidential election, at No. 45, with a 39.25 score based on 11 key metrics.
Georgia did better, pulling down a 36th place ranking with a 45.51 overall grade. Coming in at No. 1 was Maine with a 76.93 score. In last place, Hawaii had a 29.27 score.
Criteria included in WalletHub's study included voter turnout data from the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, as well as 2018 midterms.
Other measures included preparedness for voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, voter accessibility policies, per capita political contributions and participating in local groups or organizations.
Tennessee ranked 48th nationally in 2016 on the percentage of the electorate that bothered to show up in the presidential election. The state had a 53.99% turnout, a slight dip from the 2012 presidential election. But despite seeing a lower 49.6% voter turnout during 2018 midterm elections, the state actually fared better compared with other states, coming in at No. 39.
By comparison, Georgia ranked 36th on voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election with 60.24%, a slight dip from 2012. During 2018 midterm elections, Georgia's turnout also dropped, falling to 55.9%. But that was less than many states, so Georgia wound up with a 16th place ranking for that election.
There were other dings too: Political engagement among younger Tennessee voters ages 18 to 24 was 31.1%, putting them at No. 40 compared to their peers during 2018 midterms. While 64.2% of Tennessee voters ages 65 and older turned out, they nonetheless put the state at No. 44 when measured against other states.
Georgia's younger and older voters did much better, with younger Georgians' turnout in the midterms pegged at 43.5%, resulting in a No. 20 ranking nationally, while seniors' 72.4% turnout put Georgia at No. 28 in the category. Virginia's younger voters ranked No. 1 nationally with 60.7% turnout, and Maine seniors were No. 1 with 82% turnout.
Asked about Tennessee's less-than-stellar showing during a stop in Chattanooga on Tuesday and what might be done to improve things, Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, whose office oversees state elections, said Tennesseans ought not rely on him on whether or not to vote.
"People are not counting on me to tell [them] to go vote," the Republican said in response to Times Free Press questions. "People want to hear from candidates. If you look at recent years, Tennessee has not been a very competitive state in many ways and so what really drives turnout are competitive races."
The state is overwhelmingly Republican, with the last Democrat to win statewide election going back to 2006.
Hargett likened the matchup in a competitive political race to that of ranked college football teams facing off on a Saturday.
"Do we think more people go see two high-ranked football teams play or an FBS versus FCS school?" Hargett asked, referring to a matchup between top teams from the Division I Football Championship Subdivision squaring off versus one of them playing a smaller school. "We are doing our best, and I think people in both parties are doing their best to try and get people engaged in the process. What I hope is that Tennesseans will step up and go and make their voice heard."
In other comparisons, Georgia ranked ninth nationally on volunteer political campaign opportunities per capita. But Tennessee got nothing based on the unavailability of data that WalletHub could find.
Political engagement in voting by Tennessee voters ages 18 to 24 was 31.1%, putting them No. 40 compared to peers in other states. And while 64.2% of Tennessee voters ages 65 and older turned out, comparisons with other states put Tennessee at No. 44.
Georgia's younger and older voters did much better with younger Georgians' turnout pegged at 43.5%, resulting in a No. 20 ranking nationally, while seniors' 72.4% turnout put Georgia at No. 28 in the category. Virginia's younger voters ranked No. 1 nationally with 60.7% turnout, and Maine seniors were No. 1 with 82% turnout.
Tennessee also ranked No. 40 on its election preparedness for a pandemic with only a score of 6 on a 5-22 scoring range based on criteria developed by the Brookings Institute. The metric includes universal voting by mail — Tennessee doesn't have it — as well as for applying for absentee voting, completing a mail ballot and submitting it. Georgia, which received a 9 score, ranked 26th nationally.
The Volunteer State ranked 35th on voter accessibility policies. While Tennessee has early voting, the state does not have no-excuse absentee voting and same-day voter registration, which allows any qualified resident of a state to go register to vote and cast a ballot that day.
Tennessee received a 2 score out of a possible 4. Georgia, which met 3 of the 4 categories, ranked No. 16.
The Volunteer State, meanwhile, did so-so nationally on the percentage of residents who participate in local group organizations, coming in at No. 31 with a 27.4% participation rate. But Georgia was left scraping near the bottom of the barrel with 20.9% participation, putting the state at No. 48 nationally.
Tennessee did pull off a win in one category: It ranks No. 1 nationally on civic education engagement. WalletHub's category is tied to states with civics requirements in high schools.
Tennessee requires students have exposure to civics in social studies programs and demonstrate their understanding of it, first in grades 4-8 and later in grades 9-12.
Moreover, thanks to a law passed by then-House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, students must also take and pass the United State citizenship and immigration test.
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