Bipartisan Effort Wants More Nashville Teens Voting
By Frank Daniels III in The Tennessean
“Our elections don’t suffer from over-participation,” deadpanned state Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, last week when asked why he was partnering with U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, to encourage teenagers to register to vote.
While there should be no surprise that younger adults are the least likely to vote, the totals from the most recent Metro election were eye-opening.
Only 2 percent of the voters were under age 25, and less than 10 percent were under age 35. Almost 30 percent of the adults living in Nashville are between 18 and 34. People over 50 years old cast more than 70 percent of the votes in the election.
Dickerson and Cooper are working with the Davidson County Election Commission to raise awareness of a Tennessee program that allows high school students to register for the vote when they are 17 (they can’t vote until they are 18 years old, of course). State law requires local election commissions to conduct voter registration in every high school — public and private — in the county.
Last year, about 15 percent of eligible high school students registered to vote. In 2016, a presidential election year, Dickerson and Cooper hope to double the registrations.
The Davidson election commission has targeted Jan. 25-28, 2016, to register high school students, and is working with the Mayor's Youth Council, the Metro school board and the Metro Council to provide volunteers at the schools to man voter registration tables and collect voter registration forms.
To encourage a little competitive spirit, for the first time the high schools will get to see how their cohorts are doing in registrations.
In 2014-15, the top three public high schools in registrations were:
- Hume-Fogg with 121;
- Antioch with 99;
- Pearl-Cohn with 84.
Hillsboro High School had the largest percentage increase, 825 percent, from eight to 74 voters registered. Cane Ridge had the largest decrease, going from 228 to 38 voters registered.
In 2014-15, the top three private high school registrations were:
- Harpeth Hall with 64;
- University School with 36;
- Ensworth and Ezell Harding tied with 35.
Harpeth Hall also had the greatest year-over-year increase in 17- and 18-year-old voter registrations, while Nashville Christian had the largest decrease.
Presidential years are popular
I apologize for the obviousness of this observation: presidential election years generate dramatically different interest from voters. It seems perverse, but the less direct impact the office has on local residents the more likely they are to vote.
Presidents No. 1, governors No. 2, mayors and council members a distant third.
In 2000, when Democrat Al Gore ran against Republican George W. Bush, 62 percent of Nashville’s registered voters cast a ballot; tellingly, in the 2004 presidential election, turnout in Davidson County jumped to 66.45 percent.
In 2002, when former Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen won his first term as Tennessee governor, 50.1 percent of registered voters went to the polls, and turnout was very similar in 2006 at 49.6 percent of voters casting ballots.
The 2010 election, won by former Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, had a lower turnout in Nashville than the two preceding gubernatorial elections, 44.4 percent.
In August 2003, when Bill Purcell ran for his second term as Nashville mayor, 18.3 percent of registered voters showed up and voted.
In 2007, when Karl Dean was elected to his first term as Nashville mayor, turnout was just over 30 percent of registered voters; his 2011 re-election bid brought 19.7 percent of voters to the poll.
This year in the mayoral runoff, when Megan Barry beat David Fox, turnout was 29.63 percent.
The monotonous rhythm goes on … and we have not created compelling reasons for younger citizens to get engaged.
Perhaps their absence from the ballot box, and from the debate, is a large factor in the declining civility of our political discourse.
Civics test to be required
Beginning in January 2017, Tennessee high school students will have to pass a civics test as part of their graduation requirements.
The General Assembly passed a bill introduced by Sen. Mark Norris, R-Tipton, and Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, requiring local school districts to administer a shortened version of the test given to immigrants wishing to become naturalized Americans.
I imagine that the practical application of that test is high schools working with their local election commissions to increase registration to vote.
We should applaud Dickerson, Cooper and the Davidson County Election Commission for their efforts to take the first step in increasing engagement in the political process.
Students that register during the January drive, and that turn 18 by the end of February, will be eligible to vote in the March presidential preference primary.