Civic Engagement

Toward a More Equitable Democracy: Modernizing Voting Laws

I voted today … for the third time this summer!

Today’s vote was a run-off election for Nashville’s next vice-mayor. Both candidates are well qualified, but I switched my vote from my original choice in this race for one simple reason: my frustration with our voting system!

Multiple Elections are Costly

If my first-choice candidate wins, then we’ll need a fourth county-wide election to fill his council seat. The cost of each of these county-wide elections is said to run $750,000 – for those of you who may be counting, that’s $3.5M this season. Conversely, if my second-choice candidate wins, then we’ll only need a district-wide election to fill the council seat. Since the second choice is a well-qualified candidate and is the less expensive option, I switched my vote in the run-off to save money!

One Solution: Rank Choice Voting

The current election season in Nashville is an example of why ranked choice voting (“RCV”), or instant run-off voting, makes sense and saves money. In places where governments have adopted RCV, voters choose their first, second and third choices from among the candidates. Where the vote is tied (as was the case with the top two vice-mayor candidates in Nashville’s last election), the candidate with the most second choice votes ascends to win the election in an instant run-off. RCV has at least two advantages over partisan voting. First, elections tend to be less negative since the second preference candidate is a meaningful choice. Second, there is no need for costly run-off elections.

Archaic Voting Process Drivers Lower Civic Participation

The fact is that an increasing number of citizens refuse to vote simply because election laws make it difficult and costly to do so. Yet, there are multiple election laws that could be improved to make things work better. For instance, as a former professional raising two children and caring for elderly parents, I know that the cost of elections is much higher than the dollar amount spent by the state and county election commissions – the fact is that we make it hard for people to vote, especially working people and those that are disadvantaged by lack of information or lack of opportunity. As a result, it’s a minority of voters that end up deciding our elections both in Davidson County as in the rest of the state.

I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way. Let’s look at how complex and archaic the process of voting is in Tennessee. First, voters must be registered 30 days prior to the next election that they are eligible for. For those who travel out of state, written requests for mail-in ballots begin up to two months prior to any given election and end seven days prior to the elections. There are several restrictions for citizens who vote by mail, including one stating that the first election for any Tennessee voter must be attended in person at the polls.

Early Voting Helps

Registered voters generally get 10-15 days of early voting and another opportunity on election day, which falls during the work week for most people. Like many others, I like to vote early because voting early gives me a “second chance” in case my plan to vote gets interrupted by real life, like catching the flu on election day. Others enjoy voting on the regular election day because they take pride in the sense of citizenry by coming together at the polls on a single day – this is a quaint sentiment, but expensive for those who don’t make it to the polls despite their best intentions on that day.

Voting in Tennessee Needs to be Modernized

As somebody who does her banking and a fair amount of her shopping online and has never had an issue with security on either platform, our voting system seems unnecessarily cumbersome, difficult and inefficient in today’s technologically advanced world. Why do we make it so hard to vote? Why does it have to be so complicated? And WHY does it have to be so expensive? If the bankers and retailors have figured out that its more efficient to do business online, why haven’t our election laws kept up with the times? Let’s take a brief look back at election laws in an effort to understand how modernization of the process occurs.

State election laws are determined by Constitutional principles, as well as federal and state laws. The US Constitution defines election laws as a state responsibility, but four Constitutional Amendments were needed to extend voting rights for African Americans, women, those living in poverty, and those old enough to serve in the armed services. Additional federal laws were added in order to make voting accessible to historically disadvantaged citizens, such as African Americans and Americans with disabilities. State election laws, including voter ID laws and laws that regulate house and senate districting, are determined by the state legislature and must be ratified by the Governor. The secretary of state is elected by the state legislature and is responsible for carrying out constitutionally compliant elections under both federal and state laws. Thus, the state legislature, the governor and the secretary of state are the key elected officials who determine the mechanics of how we vote in Tennessee, as is the case for other states in the country.

Most states now allow at least some voters, particularly absentee voters, to receive and return ballots through a secure electronic portal, via email or fax. Only 19 states, including Tennessee,  do not allow any kind of electronic transmission of votes, except at the polls. In 2016, the Tennessee state legislature passed a law requiring the secretary of state to provide online voter registration by 2017 and in coordination with the Department of Safety driver’s license and state ID database. Thus, modernization of the voting process is occurring in Tennessee, though at a much slower pace than the rest of the nation.

If citizens wish to hasten the modernization of our voting system, save money on elections, and make it easier to have a voice in all levels of their government, they can begin looking to their state legislators, to the secretary of state and to the governor to support these changes. Who are your state legislators? That depends on where you live. If you have internet access, you can find the names and contact information for your state legislators here: http://www.capitol.tn.gov/districtmaps/HouseState.html  If you don’t have internet access, your local library or county mayor’s office can help.

Democracy Depends on It

Modernization of voting laws is one way we can realize a more satisfying, equitable democracy. Our failure to modernize the voting process leaves us more vulnerable to bitter partisanship and minority rule. Let’s pull together and communicate with our state representatives about getting smarter on rank choice voting and safe, modernized voting procedures before we waste more money, more time, and more Tennessee voices in our elections.


Published on September 6, 2018 11:51am

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Article By

Natasha Deane

Born in 1961 in St. Louis, Missouri, Natasha studied Biology and Medicine at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. John and Natasha met in 1987 while living in St. Louis where John was working with Natasha’s father, Neville Grant, M.D., a prominent physician leader at Washington University Medical Center. The two were married in the spring of 1988.

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