Vote Where Voters Are

Suppose you have a polling place, but no one shows up to vote?

The Knox County Election Commission spends about $1,500 to set up and staff a polling place for local elections. But the question arises: At what point does the commission's responsibility stop, if the voters don't care enough to show up?

What should happen if you spend $1,500 on a polling place for a huge county election and only four people vote at that location? Or how about eight? Or 24? Those were some of the vote totals in this month's county primaries.

Of the 95 precincts in the county election, almost 25 of them had fewer than 100 voters. (There are 90 locations, some locations contain more than one precinct.)

The University Center polling place on the UT campus had four voters. Okay, students weren't interested in choosing a county commissioner. The polling place at Pellissippi State's Division Street campus had eight.

Moses Center got up to 24, as did Walter P. Taylor. Fort Sanders School voted 31. West High School, 68. Austin East had 41 voters. Westview School had 49. Beaumont School 35. Green School 62. Vestal voted 64 people.

These are election day totals, so I'm sure a lot of people in these neighborhoods participated in early voting. But that's the point. Given the increasing popularity of early voting, the crush on election day is lessened. So some serious thought ought to be given to reducing the number of polling places the Election Commission is funding.

It is likely that a few polling places will be combined for the next election, some adjustments at the margin. But it is unlikely there will be any wholesale change. Polling places have been added through the years to accommodate shifts in population. More locations in the suburbs out west, for example. But an old polling place is rarely closed—there is always a community outcry. The current locations are a hodgepodge. The Division Street polling place is located where there are no people any more. The "Huffs" precinct at Sara Moore Greene School voted four people in the last election; its location has something to do with a split district at some time in the distant past between South and East Knoxville.

Changes based on local elections are difficult, because the election commission has to be prepared for presidential elections. While you might have 40 people vote in a local election, you might have a few hundred show up to vote for president. The four voters at UT turn in to 1,500 for a presidential race.

In the past city election Greg Mackay, election administrator, got legal authority to have fewer locations and extend early voting. County officials have resisted adopting such a plan for county elections, arguing for continuing the convenience of neighborhood locations to encourage voter turnout. Given lean budgets in the coming year, maybe they ought to rethink their position. Twenty locations open for extended early voting would prove popular with the voters. The Knox County Election Commission vetoed the idea last time around, aware of its unpopularity down at the courthouse. There was also some suspicion among Republican officeholders that the plan was a Democratic plot to hurt their party.

If the 20-location plan with extended early voting is just too extreme, there ought to be a happy medium somewhere between that and 90 locations. The Knox County Election Commission should develop some guidelines on what is required for keeping or opening a polling location.

There are other considerations of course.

What kind of election is it? If there is a Republican primary, like the one this month, with few candidates in the Democratic primary, you would expect lower vote totals in Democratic precincts.

When you are talking about voting locations, you also have to keep in mind the history of voting rights in the South. You have to be concerned about shutting down voting locations in predominately black neighborhoods. But these are issues that can be dealt with.

Can we justify an automatic dispersal of voting machines to 90 locations just because we've always done it that way?