Making civic duty convenient

Early voting trends change campaign strategy, voter turnout

In Chicago, the joke used to be, “Vote early and vote often.”

Today, the mantra is simply, “Vote early.”

Early voting for the state primary and local general election begins Friday and continues through July 31. If trends continue, Blount Countians are going to be going to the polls before August arrives.

Blount County administrator of elections Libby Breeding said early voting started during the November 1994 election and has led to greater voter turnout.

It’s also eliminated some people’s main excuse for not making it to the polls.

“If they use the excuse they couldn’t get there on Election Day, they don’t have that excuse. They have 15 days of early voting and Election Day. We even have late night opportunities. The polls are open until 7 at night Monday through Friday and every Saturday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” she said. “We make it to where it is more available and where there really is no excuse.”

Breeding said she personally thinks more people are turning out to vote because early voting allows people to fit doing their civic duty into their busy schedules.

“Some people still like the traditional thing of going to the polls and voting on Election Day, and that is perfectly fine. People who early vote say they didn’t want to vote on Election Day because they have to stand in line,” she said. “Early voting just makes it more convenient. If they are going to be uptown, they can drop by the courthouse and vote early.”

For this election, Blount County has two early voting sites, the Election Commission office at the Blount County Courthouse and Everett School Gymnasium.

According to the Tennessee Department of State Elections website, results from the Aug. 3, 2006, election showed the following:

In Blount County there were 75,381 registered voters. In 2006, 20.51 percent of them (15,464) voted. Early voting accounted for 24.91 percent of that total (3,852 voters).

Exactly 133 absentee votes were mailed in to the Election Commission, making the early voting total for Blount County 25.77 percent.

In Tennessee, there were 3,668,264 registered voters and 29.01 percent (1,064,171) voted in the August, 2006, election. Early voters numbered 443,220, or 41.65 percent. With absentee ballots (16,338), the percentage of early voters rose to 43.18 percent.

With early voting numbers hovering around 50 percent statewide, it’s no wonder some candidates feel the election is essentially decided by the time election day dawns. So what does this mean for campaign strategy?

Susan Mills, chair of the Blount County Republican Party, said the process doesn’t change that much for local candidates. “You continue campaigning as usual. You continue your door-to-door efforts and your phone calls. You do an ad before early voting and possibly midway through early voting and just before election day,” she said. “I really don’t think your strategy changes at all. You continue campaigning as usual and continue to work to get the vote out.”

Mark Cate, statewide campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial candidate and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, said early voting ramps everything up earlier. Early voting periods dictate backing up a campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts and making them happen earlier, not simply right before the traditional Election Day, Cate said.

“We’ve been in full swing as far as working with county leadership teams for well over a month now,” Cate said. “You have to back everything up from where it would have been years ago. Overall, we project 50 percent of votes will have been made during early voting. You can’t take it lightly,” he said. “The election day starts this Friday and goes all the way through Election Day on Aug 5. It figures into being a major part of strategy.”

Steve West is a Blount County supporter of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor. “I think it is sad more people don’t get out and vote but among those that do, early voting is more and more important and is a bigger percentage of those who vote,” he said.

West said strategically it has made campaigning start earlier. “Most of the money gets spent before early voting starts because of the percentage of early voters. You want to be sure all the early voters get your message,” he said.

Darrell Akins is supporting Chattanooga Congressman Zach Wamp’s bid for the Republican nomination for governor.

Akins said most campaigns have adjusted to early voting over the years. “The heaviest turnouts are the first two or three days of early voting, the last two or three days of early voting and then election day,” he said.

Akins said that before early voting was instituted, candidates saved up their money and did everything the last week or two before the election. “If you did that today you would miss half the voters, so it requires a more strategic look at how you use your dollars,” he said. “It changes the strategy you take to get your message out.”

Tony Webb, Blount County Democratic Chair, said because more people are voting early, candidates must get their message to the voters sooner.

“People who early vote make up their minds fairly early so it picks up the pace and makes you get the job done earlier,” Webb said.

Local candidates speak out

The League of Women Voters gave local mayoral candidates and local candidates for the state House of Representatives an opportunity to be more informed on early voting or election day on Monday, July 12. The group held a forum at the Blount County Public Library.

In the District 8 State House of Representatives race, Scott Hughes of Seymour and Art Swann of Maryville shared their views, as did State Rep. Bob Ramsey of Maryville, who is unopposed in the District 20 race.

Hughes, who is executive director of a network of Crisis Pregnancy Centers in the Knoxville area, said when State Rep. Joe McCord announced he wouldn’t run for re-election, he and his family prayed about it. He decided he wanted to run for the seat in early March, Hughes said..

“What we need in Nashville is more true leaders and not politicians,” Hughes said.

Swann, who served for two terms in the State House in District 20 in the mid-1980s before returning home to help run his family’s business, said he was on the Commerce and State and Local Government committees. “Commerce is what it is all about in this state. Without consumption taxes, we have nothing to run government,” Swann said.

Swann said there will be a $1.5 billion shortfall to address in the state budget next year. “We’ll have to deal with it, and I’ll be prepared,” he said.

Ramsey thanked the voters for allowing him to serve in his first General Assembly and said that while times are tough, Tennessee is in a better situation than other states. “Our $29.7 billion budget is less than the deficits of some states, and we have the least indebtedness of any state in the union,” he said.

Hughes said he believes in limited government interference with taxpayers and businesses. “We have to be able to make sure people who come into this state to do business have the ability to do business,” he said. “It’s all about the free flow of business and free flow of commerce.”

Regarding job growth, each candidate explained what is needed to put more folks back to work. “We have to build, grow and make stuff in Tennessee,” Hughes said. “To create sustainable jobs, we can not just fix stuff built in other places.”

Hughes said no discussion about jobs can begin without a discussion about education, and that standards must be raised for Tennessee students.

Swann said students need to be trained according to where jobs are going to be. “As far as availability, it is going to take the economy turning around before we can see more jobs,” he said. “When the economic engine kicks back in, these jobs will become available.”

Ramsey said the state invested $60 million in drawing VW to the state but that education is an area where the state could improve. “We’re 40th in the nation in graduation rates from four-year colleges and 45th in the nation in graduation rate from two-year colleges,” Ramsey said.

Regarding funding pre-kindergarten, Hughes said the question goes to funding. “Because of lean years, we are not able to fund good programs. We have priorities with education but the reality is, although it is important and needed, it is not financially the time to do it.”

Ramsey said Pre-K was a pet project of Gov. Bredesen who managed to get funding in this year’s budget for the program.

Swann said he supported continuing funding for the Pre-K programming. “We’ve got to figure out a way to put this back in the education system. I want to find a way to bring that back,” he said of bringing pre-K back after this year.

Hughes said he got into the campaign not for selfish ambition but to serve and that his and Swann’s campaigns had different messages. “Art talks about experience that counts. I come from a platform that what we need is strong leadership that represents the people of Blount and Sevier,” he said.

Swann said people see in his record his ability to represent them. “At 34, I was leader of the Republican delegation in the House. I’ve still got that drive. I’ll tell you why I’m running. I was in the minority, and I remember thinking, ‘If we ever got the majority, I didn’t want to see killer subcommittees, and I wanted the floor open for debate. I’ve been in the trenches.”

Ramsey said the strength of the state isn’t in government offices in Nashville but rather in meetings such as the League of Women Voters forum. Ramsey said he was thankful to be able to represent the 20th District and has learned how to work to get things done in Nashville. “I don’t know everything, but I know whose doors to knock on.”

In the county mayor’s race, Independent candidate Howard Kerr and Republican candidate Ed Mitchell shared their views in a congenial manner.

Kerr, a retired Oak Ridge research engineer who lost the 2006 Republican nomination in the mayor’s race, said he chose to run because of issues regarding job growth, education standards and issues with the county’s debts. “It is going to take a county mayor with a background of education and a variety of experiences,” he said. “I believe I’m the candidate who has the best set of qualifications, the best variety of experiences needed to serve as county mayor. I’ll make one pledge to you. I will do everything in my power to make this great county even better than what it is today.”

Mitchell said he is a sixth generation Blount County resident who spent 31 years in public service, over 14 as fire chief for the City of Maryville. The retired firefighter said he helped people through some of the most devastating times in their lives. “It was always my goal to make it better in any way I could. I feel in those situations, I’ve brought integrity, compassion and a caring heart,” he said.

Mitchell said he and his family prayed, and he chose to run for mayor because he felt government on all levels had begun to ignore citizens and wasn’t preparing the county to be a better place for future generations.

Mitchell said improving the economy, recruiting industry and improving education are three issues he sees for Blount County. “We have to sit down with the Industrial Development Board and form a team that is aggressive in looking for jobs and bringing clean industry in,” he said. “With schools, Blount County education standards are high. I believe we need to focus more on students and teachers. I believe in technology but I also believe if you get the best teachers, you will get the best results.”

Kerr said his first priority for economic development would be going to existing businesses and finding out what to do to increase jobs at those businesses. “We’ve got to go out and recruit new industry to come here. The county spent $5 million investing in a high tech industrial park,” he said. “Businesses want to come here because of what goes on in Oak Ridge. I know businesses that come here and want to use their machines, and I know how to talk their language.”

Mitchell said he believes in maintaining the area’s scenic beauty in part because it draws tourists. “Tourism is great part of our revenue base. We need to maintain that.

Kerr said controlling subdivision and mountain top development is part of maintaining that beauty. “There are many ways we can control and influence or direct what is done with natural resources,” he said regarding zoning and planning.

Kerr said if elected, he would set a good example for other department heads and elected officials by taking a 10 percent cut in salary. “We’re going to have to learn to do more with less. We’re going to have to look at the operating efficiency of our county offices,” he said. “Where do we spend money and where can we create efficiencies. I don’t want to increase taxes.”

Mitchell said many in government have forgotten the common lesson about wants and needs most learn as children. “If you couldn’t afford something, you didn’t buy it. Because you couldn’t afford it and didn’t buy it, you found out you didn’t need it. At some point, government must realize that concept,” he said.

“It starts in the mayor’s office. I will be the first to step up. There are going to have to be cuts. I am not raise taxes, and I don’t want it to happen in my four years. We do have to make sacrifices and cut and that’s as simple as it gets right there,” Mitchell said.

Regarding zoning and land use principles from the Hunter Growth Study, Mitchell said he agreed with those principles, to a point. “Do I believe in land regulation and zoning? I’ve worked in inspections and zoning. We have to have it. I don’t believe in zoning as total control,” he said. “I think there is a fine line between property rights and what you can tell owners they can do with their property. Nobody wants to see this beauty go away. It just needs to be something we sit down and develop guidelines where we all agree.”

Kerr said he helped start zoning years ago in Blount County. Anyone whom he appointed to serve on the Planning committee would have to be committed to preserving the scenic beauty of the county. “We have to do what we can to protect the scenic beauty of the community,” he said.

Kerr emphasized his knowledge while Mitchell emphasized his work ethic.

“We’ve got jobs and education and financial challenges with how we manage this enormous debt. We’ve got to have somebody in the county mayor’s office who has a history of solving problems,” Kerr said. “I’m a research engineer. In my work, I solve problems. That is what I specialize in. That is what we need in the county mayor’s office.”

Mitchell said he isn’t a professional politician, just someone who wants to serve. “Professionals built the Titanic. Amateurs built the ark,” he said. “No one is going to work harder than I will. If I go into the mayor’s office, I’ll go into it with the sense of doing what is right and what is best for the community.”

Not present at the forum were Republican candidates for District 8 Joe McCulley and Geoff King and Democrat candidate Marvin Pratt.

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