If you've ever doubted that all politics are local, read on.
About a month ago, an Ooltewah reader responded to an editorial on this page about getting registered to vote and double-checking that all our voting information is correct so we won't be turned away at our polling places.
That reader had quite a story. Last November, he and his wife received new polling precinct cards for a change in polling location, he said.
"Out of the blue. Not requested by us nor have we changed addresses in 20 years."
The change was from Bayside Baptist Church on Highway 58, about 2.8 miles from their driveway. The new polling place was set at Silverdale Cumberland Presbyterian Church on Bonny Oaks Drive — nearly 10 miles away.
After a number of calls, the couple was moved back to the old polling place. But then the Republican-leaning retiree and his wife — both active voters — discovered they were not alone. Their closest neighbor received a similar change.
"We keep up and we are acutely aware of the shenanigans that the various state Republican legislatures have been engaged in to make it more difficult for people to vote."
He continued: "We are aware that according to a recent study by political scientists at Emory University that for black voters for every mile from a polling place, voter participation can decrease by 5%. We also know that on our end of Ooltewah, which is close to the Highway 58/Harrison Area, there are an increased number of middle class black families, in fact there are a few in our immediate neighborhood. [G]iven the Orwellian world we are experiencing nowadays, I could not help but be immediately suspicious of these changes. Maybe some food for thought for inquiring minds?"
So, here at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, several us set out to compare a list of polling places published in the paper in March of 2010 with the precinct breakdown and polling places on the Hamilton County Election Commission's website and labeled "updated" in December 2019.
We found roughly 50 of the more than 200 precincts here had changes over the years. Some were merely name changes for the polling place address — for instance, voters in the Courthouse precinct had voted for years at the Central City Complex at 730 Martin Luther King Blvd., but the complex sold to Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. Now voters know the complex as the Kingdom Center.
Other communities simply outgrew their voting spaces and officials moved the polls to bigger churches or town halls or community centers — sometimes merging two or three small operations into one as an act of economy.
"The Election Commission has a long-standing policy of maintaining consistency in polling places during both early voting and on Election Day," Hamilton County Election Commission's administrator of elections, Kerry Steelman, said last week. "Unfortunately, from time to time situations arise out of our control such as scheduling conflicts with facilities, infrastructure concerns, compliance with ADA, we outgrow a facility, or in some cases we are simply asked to leave."
But other moves — like a series of changes in 2012 that closed a number of minority communities' polling places and merged them with other voting sites — arose out of redistricting: For example, Cedar Hill was closed and merged with East Lake. Clifton Hills 1 and 2 were closed and merged with Eastside. Highland Park was split with Ridgedale and Eastside 1&2. The Howard polling place was moved in with Alton Park and Sunnyside became part of the Missionary Ridge and Eastdale polling places.
Steelman said those specific precinct changes occurred during the 2012 redistricting process that occurred before his appointment. That redistricting was drawn up by the Tennessee Legislature in the wake of the 2010 Census, and it was the same redistricting that shrank the Chattanooga area's Democratic representation in the Tennessee general assembly by two seats:
Then-Sen. Andy Berke's district was redrawn to favor the GOP, and we now have Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire in that seat. Additionally, two long-time black House representatives, Democrats Tommie Brown and JoAnne Favors, found themselves competing against each other for the 28th House District. That was because many of the black voters in Favor's 29th District were moved to Brown's 28th District.
Democracy in action? No, more like partisanship in action.
And with the 2020 census in the wings, and a super majority of Republicans in the Legislature, we can probably look forward to more of the same.
"As a reminder, preparations for the 2020 census are underway and the subsequent redistricting plan/precinct changes will be implemented in 2022," Steelman said in a email.
In Tennessee's early primary showing of 336,604 voters, there were 2,429 more Democratic ballots pulled than Republican ballots. In Hamilton County, the numbers were even bluer: 17,903 early voters — 10,165 pulling Democratic ballots and 7,738 asking for Republican ballots.
Certainly some of those were Republican cross-overs, seeking either to have their best alternative to Trump or to sabotage a Democratic nominating effort.
Either way, there's a lot at stake here, Democrats. Elections have consequences. Turnout is more important than ever.