Report: Consolidating elections may not boost voter turnout

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — As Tennessee grapples with how to improve its consistently dismal voter turnout, a newly released state government report warns that requiring cities to move their local and school elections to coincide with statewide elections wouldn't necessarily address the problem.

Instead, the report encouraged the GOP-controlled Legislature to continue allowing cities to set their own dates.

"With different types of issues and races in the same election, including different levels of government and partisan and nonpartisan races, ballots could become long, complicated, and confusing — especially in more highly populated areas of the state that have precincts with overlapping voting districts and multiple ballot styles as a result," concluded the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR).

The 67-page report, released last week, noted that Tennessee's most populous cities don't hold their municipal elections during the statewide August and November general elections. This includes Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga, where the municipal elections are often held in odd number years when the gubernatorial and congressional seats are not up for grabs. Some 65 cities, or about 20% of Tennessee's local charters, don't align their local elections with the more high-profile election dates.

However, the majority of city elections do coincide with state races. The report found that 280 cities, or about 80% of Tennessee's local charters, hold their local elections with the larger August or November election.

The need to improve voter turnout has gained urgency over the years as Tennessee's has consistently ranked among the lowest in the country. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Elections Performance Index, which assesses election administration in every state, Tennessee ranked 49th in voter turnout in 2016, compared to 46th in 2012.

Yet election experts across Tennessee and the nation remain divided about the reasons why and the best solutions to improve those numbers.

Some lawmakers have argued that holding too many elections reduces interest in turning out to the polls. In 2018, Republican Rep. Cameron Sexton — who has since become the state House speaker — introduced legislation with Sen. Todd Gardenhire requiring certain cities to change their election dates to coincide with either the August or November election in even-numbered years — statutorily defined as "regular" elections — by 2022.

A House subcommittee agreed to study the bill further by sending it to be reviewed by TACIR rather than advance the proposal.

In the state report released Thursday, local municipal experts warned that while consolidating election dates may save money, it doesn't draw more attention to hyper local issues.

"Sometimes voters cast their vote for races at the top of the ballot, such as for president or governor, but don't complete the bottom of the ballot where local city or county races and initiatives are listed. This is often called ballot fatigue or drop-off. When elections are consolidated, ballots include more races and initiatives, resulting in longer ballots and potentially more drop-of," the report read.

In a prepared statement, Sexton said he agreed with TACIR's findings but did not mention whether he would push the issue again in the 2020 legislative session.

"Election timing is an important factor in determining voter turnout, which is critical in a representative republic," he said.