Editorial Roundup: Tennessee

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

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Oct. 16

Johnson City Press on expanding early voting options:

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.

On Oct. 14, 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, 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 Oct. 14. 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 the 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.

Online: https://www.johnsoncitypress.com

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Oct. 14

The Kingsport Times-News on the effectiveness of campaign signs:

Like kudzu, “the vine that ate the South,” campaign signs crop up here and there as political seasons approach. Before long they invade neighborhoods and streets and highways right up to Election Day — and some weeks beyond.

When all but piled on top of each other as at Kingsport’s Civic Auditorium, they are eyesores. And for all the importance placed on them, political signs don’t offer much of a return against their cost. Jonathan Krasno, a political science professor at Binghamton University in New York, reported in a study that campaign signs have no effect on voter turnout and provide but only a minuscule boost, if any, in a candidate’s chances to win.

Randomized field experiments in a study by lead author Donald Green of Columbia University found that lawn signs increase voter share by but 1.7 percentage points on average, an effect unlikely to be large enough to alter the outcome except perhaps in a very close contest.

But the more signs the better, candidates seem to believe. That becomes a problem about where signs are placed. Generally, so-called election litter may only be put on private property with permission. They may be the sign of the season, but they cannot be placed in public rights of way where they may obstruct drivers’ views or present safety hazards.

In Kingsport and Johnson City, illegal political signs are picked up and stored where candidates can retrieve them.

Several years ago when signs were getting out of hand, Rogersville sent officers on a sweep to remove signs illegally posted on city rights of way, and the haul included campaigns for county mayor, highway superintendent and county commissioners. “They are all at the Street Department, and we’ll be glad to let them come by and pick them up,” said the city building inspector.

Not a bad idea. It would be a monstrously better idea if fines are attached. Another good idea would be to create a social media page where residents can report with a photo what they believe may be an illegal sign.

Signs are also prohibited from appearing on public property such as schools and parks, in median areas between traffic lanes, and along controlled-access roads.

While campaign rules vary by community, under state law campaign signs must clearly state who paid for the sign and that it may not be displayed within 100 feet of the entrance to a voting location on Election Day.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the display of political and other types of signs on residential property is a unique, important and protected means of communication, and towns cannot restrict the display of such signs. As displays of free speech, we couldn’t agree more.

But public property is different, and for reasons of safety and appearance, communities have not just a right to control where they are placed but a duty to ensure enforcement.

Online: https://www.timesnews.net