Who benefits when state makes it harder to vote?

Bills to make voting easier languish in legislature, despite state’s low turnout stats

Friday, July 5, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 27
By Kathy Carlson

Remember earlier this year when it seemed possible that state lawmakers could agree on bills to make it easier for people to vote? One bipartisan bill, for example, would have done away with requiring some first-time voters to vote in person, a hardship for students who register by mail and then go away to college.

Alas, these bills weren’t meant to be. Despite early optimism and a Vanderbilt poll showing support for making voting easier, many voter-convenience measures died in committee during this year’s legislature. The bills stalled even though Tennessee ranks near the bottom of all states in voter turnout.

Why didn’t these bills pass and, more importantly, why don’t more people vote in the Volunteer State?

Election data from the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office and covering the years from the Clinton to Trump presidencies, 1994-2018, shed light on the second question.

In presidential elections, it looks like we’re about average in voter turnout. Turnout in presidential elections runs at about 60 percent nationwide, National Public Radio reports. About 62 percent of Tennessee voters cast ballots in 2016, compared with about 66 percent in both 2004 and 2008.

NPR also found four in 10 eligible voters nationally cast ballots in midterm elections. In Tennessee, 41 percent voted in the 2010 midterms and 36 percent in 2014.

However, Tennesseans’ participation in at least two midterm elections exceeded 50 percent, with about 57 percent voting in the 1994 midterms and 54 percent in last year’s midterms. Those midterms were seen by some voters as referenda on the presidents elected two years previously: Bill Clinton in 1992 and Donald Trump in 2018.

Participation in Tennessee’s August elections has been noticeably lacking, with turnout ranging from a low of about 14 percent in 2016 to a high of 46 percent in 1994. These elections have included mayoral races, such as next month’s Aug. 1 election in Nashville. In August 2018, voters across the state chose their party’s candidate for governor, U.S. senator, U.S. House of Representatives and the state Legislature.

One of the biggest reasons people don’t vote is a lack of competitive races, says Kent Syler, a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University. For 26 years, Syler was chief of staff for former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, a Murfreesboro Democrat who served from 1985-2011.

The NPR report also gave several factors in voter participation. Money matters: Wealthy voters vote at an 80 percent rate, compared with 50 percent for low-income voters. Older people vote more than younger people. Some folks don’t care or say they’re too busy; others don’t like the choices, think their vote doesn’t matter, see the system as corrupt or don’t think they know enough to vote.

Both the NPR report and Syler say that the more competitive the race, the greater the interest among voters and the greater the turnout.

Comparing the 2014 midterm elections with the 2018 midterms, Syler says a competitive U.S. Senate race last year between former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, and the eventual Republican winner, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, probably drew more voters to the polls. With greater interest and more competition came lots of advertising, which also encourages people to vote, he adds.

State elections records show about 54 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2018 midterms, compared with about 36 percent in 2014. That’s more than 830,000 people voting in 2018 compared with 2014.

“The Democratic Party has got to try to recruit the best possible candidates they can find and keep (races) competitive,” Syler says.

Asked what could be done with legislation to encourage greater voter participation, Syler adds, “There’s not an easy out. I think it’s more lack of competitive races than obstacles to voting.”

A recent Vanderbilt poll showed broad bipartisan support for removing at least two barriers to voting. About 66 percent of poll participants backed bills that would tie voter registration to applying for a driver’s license or interacting in other ways with state government.

Even more participants, about 74 percent, agreed it should be easier for certain felons to regain voting rights after completing all the terms of their sentence. Felons convicted of murder, rape, treason or voter fraud would remain permanently banned from voting under the scenario described in the poll. A bill that stalled in the state Legislature this year was drawn along those lines.

The average citizen favors making it easier to register to vote and to vote, says John Geer, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. He and Josh Clinton, Abby and Jon Winkelried Professor of Political Science, co-directed the poll, which reached about 1,000 people in May on both landline and cell phones. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.8%.

There’s a belief that more participation in the political system will have partisan consequences, that those who don’t vote tend to be Democrats, and that registering more people to vote will not help Republicans, Geer says. “I’m not sure that’s right,” he continues, “but the reality is that’s the belief.”

Geer says studies of the original motor voter bills in the 1990s found that allowing people to register to vote in that way “actually helped Republicans a little bit. It didn’t have the partisan implications people feared. … Politics changes in ways that people don’t anticipate.”

Syler says he agrees that it’s hard to tell who benefits from easing rules on voter registration. “The presumption is it helps Democrats marginally more than Republicans. I don’t know if that’s true,” he says.

The Gordon campaign asked in its own polling in 2009 whether participants were born in Tennessee or moved here, he adds. Those who had moved here identified more frequently as conservative and were more likely to vote Republican than those who were raised here.

Additionally, Gordon campaign polling conducted 1984-2009 showed that over time, respondents increasingly self-identified as politically conservative, with self-identified moderates declining.

Registering conservative newcomers could benefit Republicans; they could also arguably cancel out the presumed benefit to Democrats from easing registration rules, Syler says.

Tennessee voters elected a Republican governor, Bill Lee, to succeed Republican Bill Haslam last year and gave Republicans an overwhelming majority in both chambers of the state Legislature. Five of 33 members of the Tennessee Senate are Democrats; 26 of 99 House members are Democrats.

Geer says when there’s a supermajority in a state legislature, there’s a tendency for it to pay attention only to its concerns. Also, majority legislators might be more concerned about competition from less-moderate members of their own party and move toward less-moderate positions. They generally worry more about being unseated by losing their party primary than by losing to the other political party in the general election, he continues.

A supermajority can ignore the preferences of the minority, he adds, even though more people in general agree with some of the minority party’s positions, especially when the minority isn’t a strong party and legislative districts favor the supermajority.

That dynamic seemed to be at work on election-related bills in this year’s legislature.

Of some 60 bills affecting elections and introduced in 2019, only two of 30 with Democratic sponsorship passed. In all, 10 bills listed as election bills on the legislature’s website passed this year.

Democratic Rep. Johnny Shaw, of Bolivar, co-sponsored two bills that passed with Republican Sen. Dolores Gresham, of Somerville. Shaw represents voters in two counties in Gresham’s Senate district. One bill said that a person who loses in a primary race cannot run in the general election as a write-in candidate; the other barred persons convicted of voter fraud from helping another person cast a ballot.

The election-related bills that were enacted included two on convenience voting, first implemented to allow Rutherford County residents to vote on Election Day at a polling place of their choosing rather than the place closest to their home. Another bill imposed civil penalties on certain groups that submit 100 or more incomplete registration forms to election commissions.

Democrat-sponsored bills that died in committee included several that would have allowed people to register to vote through applying for a driver’s license or making other contacts with state government agencies. One such bill is in summer study and sponsor Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, says she will rework it and try again.

A bipartisan bill by Democrat Rep. Harold Love Jr. and Republican Sen. Steve Dickerson, both of Nashville, would have allowed some first-time voters to obtain absentee ballots by producing and mailing copies of the same identification they would have had to show if they voted in person. That bill failed in committee, although Love pledges to try again.

Another bill, initially sponsored by Republicans, would have restored voting rights to certain felons who were pardoned or completed their sentence, doing away with their having to go through a cumbersome application process. Those already permanently barred from regaining voting rights would remain permanently barred.

Several Democrats signed on as co-sponsors of this bill, joining Rep. Michael Curcio, R-Dickson and Dickerson. In addition, local branches of two groups that don’t frequently agree on policy, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Prosperity, supported the measure.

Despite the convergence of support from such different groups, the bill stalled.

In the news release on the Vanderbilt poll, Geer and Clinton said the state’s leaders have a choice to make between further strengthening their bases or pursuing a bipartisan agenda.

Past Vanderbilt polls reflected a political pragmatism in Tennessee politics, in which the Republican majority crafted policies that acknowledged views of non-Republicans. That seemed to be changing, the poll directors said this time.

“What is happening nationally in terms of polarization is beginning to infiltrate state politics,” Geer said in the news release. “We’re at a crossroads – going forward, our state leaders can choose to address issues that divide, or issues that unite.”