Now that early voting clearly is the choice of thousands of voters in Northeast Tennessee, it’s time for local election commissions to alter their strategies.
Wednesday on the first day of early voting in Tennessee for the Nov. 3 elections, voters encountered long lines, some of which extended into parking areas, and thereby long waits. Cars even lined up along roads and highways, presenting safety hazards. Voters could not easily heed social distancing precautions because of the sheer numbers of people trying to cast ballots.
As we reported in Thursday’s edition, Unicoi County Administrator of Elections Sarah Fain said it was the biggest early voting day in the county’s history with the line to vote at times stretching 30 to 40 people deep. In Carter County, election officials found a line waiting at the door as they arrived at work, and by the middle of the afternoon, more than 1,000 residents had cast their votes. The story was similar in Washington County, where waiting times at some sites were at least 25 minutes.
Many would-be voters likely turned around in frustration. Hopefully, they will see fit to try again, but who could blame them if they do not?
As a traditionally low-voting region in a low-voting state, Northeast Tennessee must provide better access to the polls. Recognizing that resources are limited and poll workers can be hard to come by, we urge election commissions to find ways to expand.
Locations are both too small and too few.
In Washington County, for example, the tiny Princeton Arts Center on Oakland Avenue is no longer a viable site for early voting, given the size of crowds there on Wednesday. Surely Washington County officials saw that coming considering the heated presidential election, the number of local races on the ballot and the steady increase in early voters over the years.
The whole concept of early voting is to increase participation by making it more convenient for people to vote. If Wednesday’s congestion is any indication, that convenience is in jeopardy. Long waits may have the opposite effect.
Since many precincts used on Election Day are schools, it would be difficult to utilize them for early voting, but there are plenty of untapped locations for both more and larger places to handle the volume. Perhaps it’s also time for Tennessee to extend early voting to a full month before the election in presidential years.
Again, the keys to all are resources and personnel, but in the name of democracy, such obstacles must be overcome.
The lines may die down before early voting ends on Oct. 29, but how many frustrated voters will go unserved in the meantime? Just how crowded will the polls be on Nov. 3 as a result? How many discouraged voters whose time is limited will opt out altogether?
Free elections are among our most precious privileges in America. Little we do in public life compares. It offers every eligible citizen a voice in governance. It’s the ultimate medium of free speech.
For this republic to truly be rooted in democracy, access to voting should be at the top of the list in government services. Consider it infrastructure — just as important as roads, utilities and public buildings.