Hundreds gather for Civility Tennessee discussion on why Tennesseans aren't voting

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PHOTO: (From left to right) Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Shanna Hughey, President of ThinkTennessee, state Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, and U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville.


Voting in the Volunteer state seems to be low-priority for many Tennesseans. Tennessee ranks second to last in America for voter turnout, 45th in voter registration, and 47th for problems reported with registration and absentee ballots.

In response to such alarming numbers, Lipscomb University’s Nelson & Sue Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership, an initiative of the College of Leadership and Public Service, teamed up with The Tennessean to sponsor a discussion titled, “Why aren’t Tennesseans voting like they should?” The event, held at Collins Alumni Auditorium on Lipscomb’s campus, attracted more than 400 attendees who were eager for answers to the state’s voting dilemma. Panelists participating in the discussion were Secretary of State Tre Hargett, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, state Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, and Shanna Hughey, President of ThinkTennessee.  

In 2017, Cooper and Dickerson co-founded Project Register, a non-partisan initiative that serves to "increase voter registration where Middle Tennesseans work, live, learn and play," Cooper stated at the forum, “Steve Dickerson and I thought it was deeply disturbing that a great city like Nashville had more voters in 1971 than we did in a recent election.” According to the Tennessean, Cooper is referring to Nashville’s 2015 mayoral election, in which 6,000 fewer residents voted than in 1971, despite the city’s population having grown by 206,000 people during that time.

Hargett explained that his office has made several attempts to increase voter turnout by implementing innovative strategies, like the creation of the #GoVoteTN social media campaign. The office also seeks to foster youth-focused programs which include essay contests, mock elections, and high school voter registration. When explaining why strategies like these haven’t been effective, Hargett compared his office’s efforts to a restaurant, saying “We open the restaurant and we prepare the dinner, but we can’t make people eat.”

Getting people to the polls isn’t the only challenge the state faces; hacking is also a major concern among residents. Cooper claimed Tennessee’s election machines are extremely dated and easy to hack, and called on the state to purchase an Albert Sensor, a device that monitors election databases for signs of hacking or outside intrusion. He even called out the state’s incompetence, explaining how Davidson County once purchased software that counted several ballots as Republican votes, even though residents and sitting Democrats in the county voted otherwise. Cooper says, “We need to call a spade a shovel, recognize what’s going on here, and fix it. We are the shining city on the hill and a part of the greatest country in the world. We’ve gotta keep it that way and not let it fall into disrepair.”

Voter purging was also a hot-button topic of the night. The Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of an Ohio law that allows for more aggressive voter purging. Currently, Tennessee only purges a name when someone dies, leaves the state, becomes a convicted felon, or moves. When asked if Tennessee's legislature should consider returning to the old law, Cooper said “this is something we need to look at before the 2019 legislative session. Our legislature will be tempted to follow the Ohio example, which is constitutional. That doesn’t mean it’s right or wise..that means its constitutional.” Hughey underscored Cooper’s sentiments by agreeing with the moral concern of purging, and said aggressive purging actually comes with a high price-tag for the state. Hargett instantly rebutted, saying, “we’re not pursuing a change that I know of. I haven’t heard a single legislator that I know talk about pursuing a change. So I don’t see that being an issue during legislation.”

Though the discussion defined the state’s voting system as rudimentary, some great alternatives and potential solutions were considered in the conversation. Dickerson said he is working on legislation that will make it easier to restore voting rights for men and women being released from prison. Hargett said his office is implementing vulnerability scans, and will do them on a more frequent basis to ensure the protection of voter information. When speaking about the members of Leadership Tennessee, an initiative of the College of Leadership and Public Service that connects a diverse network of Tennessee’s leaders who work to engage citizens, Lipscomb University President L. Randolph Lowry said, “At the end of the day, if we as citizens don’t use the processes that are in place..to vote, to encourage our democracy, so much of the work that they do will be for naught.”

The night’s discussion leaves a lasting impression on the state of Tennessee: no matter the affiliation, it is evident that our organizations, institutions, politicians, and citizens must make a collaborative effort to encourage and strengthen voting processes.

The College of Leadership & Public Service aspires to help shape and practice a different approach to leadership and public service, built on a model of civil discourse, innovation and bold action. We are teaching our students and those community members that participate in our programming to ask the right questions. Listen to understand. Collaborate to serve. And use collective impact to create. We offer academic and community programming through the Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice and Society, the Institutes for Conflict management and Sustainable practice, The School of Public Policy, our statewide Leadership Tennessee program and the Nelson and Sue Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership.