Photo by Andrew Wigdor / MTSU Sidelines
A bill that would establish polling places on institutions of higher education in Tennessee has been introduced in the General Assembly, with multiple MTSU representatives playing key roles in the formation of the proposal.
London Lamar, the youngest female representative in Tennessee, has introduced HB0554, which would require county election commissions across the state to use public institutions of higher education with 8,000 or more enrolled students for polling places during early voting in federal, state and general elections and presidential primaries.
“This generation is the largest rising generation of eligible voters in this country who need to have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote and be involved in the political process,” Lamar said. “What better way to be involved in the political process than by being able to engage in the opportunity on our institutions of higher learning, which are our college campuses?”
Lamar believes that colleges have an obligation to not only train students to be efficient members of the future workforce but also to be active participants in democracy.
With no polling place on many college campuses, obstacles like transportation can get in the way of a young person voting. In the 2018 midterm elections, the closest polling locations to MTSU were over a mile away from certain residence halls on the campus, making voting a hassle for students who do not own a vehicle.
While the number of MTSU students that participated in the latest election is not yet available, the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement’s 2016 MTSU report displays how many students participated in that year’s inflammatory election. According to the report, only 8,858 out of 19,887 eligible students voted, or, in other words, less than half of the student population.
Additionally, the state as a whole ranked 49th in the country in voter turnout in 2016.
“That is problematic, and that is not something to be proud of,” Lamar said. “What we need to do is to make sure our political process is inclusive …”
Lamar, however, isn’t the only person who believes a polling location on campus would do wonders for student-voter turnout. Mary Evins, the director of the American Democracy Project at MTSU, has been working with Lamar on making the bill a reality and said that the university has been striving to bring a polling place to campus for over a decade.
In 2005, ADP was working with Rutherford County Election Commission to bring a polling place to campus. However, the opportunity eventually closed due to lack of available space on campus and other factors, and, when she took over as the new director of ADP in 2009, Evins attempted to pick up where those before her left off.
“We were running into a lot of difficulties,” Evins said. “It’s a problem, and I think it has to do with perception of MTSU students that they’re all commuters and they don’t live there.”
Despite these issues, Evins continued to build a case for a polling place on MTSU’s campus. One way ADP did so was by conducting research on other institutions that had success in this arena. Evins cited the success that the University of Tennessee-Knoxville had in gaining both a polling place and a precinct on campus.
“When we initially looked at those statistics and we compared them with precincts in and around MTSU and Rutherford County, the difference is just phenomenal,” Evins said. “The Knox County students at UT were just voting in vastly greater numbers than MTSU.”
Despite the evidence in favor of bringing a polling place to campus, ADP was still unable to convince the local election commission to move forward with the initiative.
“I became aware that the only way we were going to skin this cat was by getting a piece of legislation through the state legislature,” Evins said.
At a Tennessee Civic Engagement Task Force meeting in January, Evins was introduced to London Lamar, who was seeking expertise regarding the polling place bill. Later that month, they met, and Evins provided Lamar with research and advice regarding the wording of the bill.
Evins also wanted to provide Lamar with bipartisan support, as Lamar was the sole sponsor and a Democrat.
“At MTSU, our business professor Dr. Charles Baum, like London Lamar, is a brand new representative in the General Assembly from the GOP side of the isle,” Evins said.
Baum, who still teaches classes at MTSU, was informed about the opportunity and quickly signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill.
“It’s important for it to be a bipartisan effort because having students get involved in local, state and federal issues and becoming more civically engaged will help enhance the election process and help us elect better leaders,” Baum said. “… It should not concern us whether the young people are voting for Republicans or Democrats. What’s important is to get young people engaged and in the habit of voting.”
The bill will be heard before the Elections & Campaign Finance Subcommittee on Wednesday and will have to pass several committees following that hearing.
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