As the primary and presidential elections are quickly approaching, citizens across the nation are preparing to vote. However, for politically involved young adults who may have recently moved for college, figuring out how and where to vote can be a challenge.
For UT students who registered to vote in their home county and have since relocated to Knox County to attend UT, absentee ballots are one option.
However, absentee ballots, which can be submitted via mail, can only be cast if you registered to vote in person or have previously voted in person. Essentially, this means that students who registered to vote online or via mail are not eligible to receive an absentee ballot if they have not yet voted in person.
Page Forrest is a graduate of UT’s Master of Public Policy and Administration program who studied voting rights and access, inter-governmental relations and local and state government with the Baker Center during her time as a Vol.
She explained that college students often face obstacles, such as those aforementioned, which may dissuade them from becoming politically active.
“College students in Tennessee often face additional bureaucratic processes that make voting difficult, which when paired with a growing sense of distrust for government institutions, can dissuade younger generations from voting entirely,” Forrest said.
Forrest explained that once students encounter obstacles the first time they attempt to vote, they often fall into the habit of failing to be civically engaged.
“For most college students who aren't legally able to vote for the first time until they're in college, attending college away from home can make it difficult to vote in person. And once someone skips one election, it usually creates a pattern,” Forrest said.
Aiming to help student voters by clearing up confusion on the subject of absentee ballots, Administrator of Elections for the Knox County Election Commission Cliff Rodgers broke down the law and its processes.
Rodgers explained that these restrictions on absentee ballots exist due to a law that requires election commissions in Tennessee to view photo IDs for all voters in the county prior to casting their votes.
When it comes to absentee ballots, the law helps prevent voter fraud by requiring extra authentication.
“The whole purpose of the photo ID law is so that we see your photo ID before we send you a ballot in the mail,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers greatly emphasized that in no way are these laws intended to be secretive.
“We want to inform everybody of what's going on. It's not a secret operation down there. We’re open and transparent. People may disagree with the law, but we’re following it, and it shouldn't be a secret what the law is,” Rodgers said.
For UT students registered to vote outside of Knox County, there are several ways to accommodate the absentee ballot law. First, students can travel just a short 10 minutes from campus to the Knox County Election Commission, located at 300 Main St. SW #218, with their photo ID. A Tennessee driver’s license or federally-issued passport can be used, but student ID cards, such as VolCards, and out-of-state driver’s licenses cannot.
The commission can then send a copy of this ID to the election commission where the student is registered, and the student will then be eligible to receive an absentee ballot from their home county.
Students eligible to vote via absentee ballot may request an absentee ballot seven to 90 days prior to an election. However, the election commissioner also must process the request no later than seven days prior to the election, so it is preferable to request a ballot earlier rather than later.
Furthermore, students can also switch their registration from their home county to Knox County by registering in person in Knoxville. Although the deadline to register before the spring Tennessee presidential primaries was Feb. 3, the deadline to register prior to the fall presidential election will be 30 days before the election.
It is important to note, however, that a voter can only be registered in one county at a time. By switching your registration to Knox County, you will no longer be registered in your home county.
Rodgers emphasized that any students who registered in Knox County prior to Feb. 3 but have not received a Voter ID card or perhaps received a deficiency letter regarding their registration should come down to the election commission.
If students forgot to fill out a portion of their application or made a mistake but registered before the Feb. 3 deadline, it is still possible to fix this discrepancy by visiting the office.
Additionally, Rodgers highly encourages students to take advantage of early voting. For the presidential primary elections, early voting is currently taking place and will continue through Feb. 25.
There are several benefits in choosing to vote early. For one, citizens are not required to vote in a particular location during early voting. They may vote at any voting location within the county they are registered in. On the actual Election Day, which is March 3 for the Tennessee primaries, citizens are assigned to a specific location.
For UT students who live in and around campus, this location will vary. For example, on-campus students living south of Kingston Pike will likely be assigned to the Baker Center, while those who live in the adjacent Fort Sanders neighborhood may be assigned to vote at Fort Sanders School.
Additionally, extensive lines of those waiting to vote often form in precincts on Election Day, so a longer wait can be avoided by voting early.
Early voting can also be beneficial to those registered outside of Knox County. Every county in Tennessee is required to administer early voting on at least two Saturdays for at least three hours each day. Those Saturdays provide the opportunity for students to travel to their home county to vote if necessary.
As Rodgers blatantly stated, early voting simplifies the process for all involved.
“The drama is avoided in early voting,” Rodgers said.
This upcoming Saturday, Feb. 22, is the last Saturday for early voting.
Ultimately, Rodgers emphasized that his department does want students to vote and hopes that they will consider which registration and voting options are best for them.
“I want people to understand, we want students to vote. If they want to be residents of Knoxville while they're here going to school, that's fine with us. Nobody’s pushing back on it, but we just want to get it right, and we want them to think through the decision. Is it easier for the student, or does it make more sense for them to be registered here or somewhere else?”
Although many college students must adapt to voting from afar and the aforementioned absentee ballot laws, Forrest encourages those who are registered locally but perhaps frustrated with America’s voting system to research more greatly the influence held by local elections.
“For those [who] don't face bureaucratic barriers to voting or obtaining an absentee ballot and are merely disillusioned with our political system, I'd urge them to look further into local and state-wide races,” Forrest said. “These elections can often have an even greater impact on day-to-day life, and lower voter turnout in these elections means that only a select few individuals are getting to handpick who runs our city councils and local boards."