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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Dennis O'Rear casts his ballot for the upcoming Hamilton County local elections at the Hamilton County Election Commission on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Whether you're passionate about police reform and public safety or access to affordable housing and public transportation, or you just want to drive on smoother roads and see better local infrastructure, the March 2 city council and mayoral elections will affect the daily lives of every Chattanoogan.

Yet, statistically, fewer than 1 in 5 registered voters will actually participate in the selection of the city's new leadership.

Nathan Bird, a local civil engineer and host of Chattanooga Civics, a new podcast focused on explaining local government, cast his early vote this weekend.

"Local government is the closest to the people that it's supposed to be serving. You have the most direct voice in local government," Bird told the Times Free Press Wednesday, when asked about his participation in the election.

Participating in local elections and city government as a whole has become a passion of Bird's, he said, due to the proximity of local elected officials to the issues that affect his daily life.

"A lot of the most important issues that people really worry about on a day-to-day basis are really local issues at their core," Bird said. "Housing, education, public safety, they're all inherently local issues."

And while those issues touch every citizen's life, voter turnout for municipal elections remains incredibly low.

During the last city election in 2017, 18,971 of Chattanooga's 96,333 voters — or roughly 19.6% — decided who would run the city for another four years. In the 2013 election, it was 18,245 of the city's 111,324 registered voters — so just 16.39% — who participated in the municipal election.

This year there has been a slight improvement in voter turnout during early voting that is going on now.

(READ MORE: Chattanoogans surpass previous first day, absentee voting numbers in city election)

As of the close of polls on Tuesday, with two days of early voting left, 9,008 Chattanoogans had voted, according to the Hamilton County Election Commission. That's higher than the early voting totals of the 2013 (7,320) and 2017 (7,678) general elections.

WHAT TO BRING

All voters must present a federal or Tennessee state ID with the voter’s name and photograph. These IDs are acceptable:

— Tennessee driver license with your photo

— United States passport

— Photo ID issued by the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security

— Photo ID issued by the federal or Tennessee state government

— United States military photo ID

But, with COVID-19, recent elections have seen a surge in early voting that doesn't reflect a proportionate increase on election day.

Hamilton County Administrator of Elections Scott Allen said last week that the new trend of early voting means about half of all votes are cast on election day and half are early or absentee.

"It's kind of shifting to where early voting is slowly taking over election day," Allen said on the first day of early voting. "It started probably in about 2016, and it became about 50/50, split, and then we have slowly increased that early turnout."

So if Wednesday and Thursday have similar voter turnout to the last 12 days — an average of 751 people per day — that'll be about 10,510 early votes. If that's half of the overall turnout, we can estimate about 21,000 total voters, or something around 18% of the 114,217 registered city voters.

WHERE TO VOTE EARLY ON THURSDAY

— Hamilton County Election Commission

700 River Terminal Road

Chattanooga, TN 37406

( 8 a.m. - 6 p.m.)

— Brainerd YFD

1010 North Moore Road

Chattanooga, TN 37411

(10 a.m. - 6 p.m.)

— Hixson Community Center

5401 School Drive

Hixson, TN 37415

(10 a.m. - 6 p.m.)

On the one hand, that would be a couple thousand voters over the previous two city elections. On the other, that's still shy of 1 in every 5 registered voters, and a small percentage decrease from 2017.

To citizens such as Bird, who believe in the power of local government, those numbers are disappointing.

"Unfortunately innovation and responsiveness is only really possible if [elected officials] are actually getting feedback from people, you know, which brings it back to the turnout," Bird said. "If people aren't turning out and actually trying to make their voice heard, the local government is not going to be responsive, if they don't have anything to respond to."

Voter turnout as of Tuesday by city council district:

District 1 - 1,015 voted; 14,730 registered

District 2 - 1,347 voted; 14,171 registered

District 3 - 1,639 voted; 15,378 registered

District 4 - 996 voted; 14,456 registered

District 5 - 1,112 voted; 12,202 registered

District 6 - 736 voted; 12,718 registered

District 7 - 664 voted; 10,881 registered

District 8 - 553 voted; 8,667 registered

District 9 - 946 voted; 11,014 registered

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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