As part of National Voter Registration Day on Tuesday, the Unity Group is asking all eligible voters to "check your status", by reviewing, and if needed, updating your voter registration status.
Voter information can be verified in a variety of ways. You may call or email your local election commission. You may review voter registration cards in order to make certain they are up to date. You may also check your status online through the Secretary of State's website.
Voter participation has lagged in Tennessee communities. Numerous groups such as the PEW Research Center and World Population Review have analyzed statistical information and state that Tennessee ranks 40th in voter registration and close (48) to last in voter participation out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Likewise, the last wave of elections for the Chattanooga mayoral and municipal races were less than 30 percent in numerous polling places.
Nevertheless, there are several ways we can remove barriers and better enhance voter registration and participation. Many groups and organizations have called for automatic registration during the obtaining and renewing of licenses and photo IDs. In fact, in 2019 students from Chattanooga submitted legislation which would have automatically registered 18 year olds as they obtained licenses and photo IDs.
Restoring rights to ex-offenders is another potential area where we can increase voter participation. As reported by the New York Times earlier this year, Tennessee has a draconian process for restoring voting rights to ex-offenders which includes clemency from the governor's office, by court order, and by having fully paid legal fees and restitution. Currently, over 470,000 potential voters are denied the right to vote because of these measures. This prompted the Campaign Legal Center to file suit in 2020.
We also believe there should be an expansion of early voting by at least one week. Included in this recommendation is the need for Sunday voting, commonly referred to as "Souls to the Polls." This is an occasion when churches, faith groups and the greater community emphasize the importance of voting and participation in the democratic process. Oftentimes congregants are transported to or stroll to the polls in an effort to raise voter awareness or cast ballots for candidates of their own choosing.
Another way we can increase voter participation is to make college IDs permissible forms of identification at the polls. We urge all college students to register, obtain proper ID, learn your polling locations, and request an absentee ballot from your home election commission if you plan to vote in your county of origin.
Finally, several concerns were witnessed because of the Chattanooga City District 8 special election of 2022. Voters were not informed that due to the 50 percent plus 1 standard found within the City Charter, in the absence of a candidate surpassing the 50 percent threshold in a multi-tiered race; a special election would be constituted where the two highest vote getters would be placed in a run-off.
It was egregious that the processes and procedures that conducted the special election were not adequately conveyed to the residents of District 8.
The failure of the Charter to clearly spell out the procedures of the special election, the absence of an official resolution that corresponded to those rules, and failure of government and election officials to provide pertinent information and guidance, left the voters of District 8 in a Zone of Twilight where there were concerns of polling place closures; a confounding and dumbfounding redistricting process; names that were thought to be purged from the rolls; and in some instances voters reported irregularities such as being given the wrong ballots. This cites the need to modernize and amend the City Charter in order to ensure fair electoral processes.
Voting is one way we lift up our voices. We hope that eligible voters will register. Before you exercise your right to vote, we recommend that you learn the district numbers of your city council, county commission, school board, state and federal districts because they may be different and occur at different times in an election cycle.
Learn your polling place because it may be altered because of Redistricting which occurred last year. Become aware of the process for mail-in and absentee voting. Most importantly, become an aware and informed voter.
State and local officials also have a role in fair and equitable election processes and outcomes and should do all they can to remove voting barriers and hindrances such as the recommendations we have outlined.
Voting is a right paid for with blood, sweat and tears, a right that should be afforded to all, and denied or abridged by none.
Unity Group of Chattanooga