By Jillian Waterhouse, Staff Writer—
The deadline for voter registration was Monday, Oct. 5, and Chattanoogans were busy at work ensuring that their communities will be heard loud and clear for the 2020 presidential election.
Campus mobilizers, such as the department of Political Science and Public Service, as well as the Mocs Go Vote initiative, have been faced with a new challenge this year. In addition to the standard obstacle of persuading college students to register to vote, groups seeking to increase Chattanooga’s political participation rates have had to creatively organize around the barriers of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Voter registration drives typically rely on in-person participation and volunteers. While some campus organizations continued with this tradition, many efforts to boost local political engagement have been made from a distance. Exemplary of this, the Student Government Association (SGA) distributed voter information cards in heavily trafficked areas of campus, such as the newly renovated Lupton Center, which detailed essential information about the voter registration process.
Nicki Messer, President of UTC’s College Democrats, expressed frustration with the difficulties of socially distanced efforts to increase campus political engagement.
“We planned on helping spread information with SGA, but since I am currently not in Chattanooga, and for safety reasons, I don’t think we will be doing a voter registration this semester,” Messer said.
While some Chattanooga groups have struggled with the complications of encouraging political participation this fall, others, such as the Mayor’s Youth Council (MYC), embraced the turn towards digital initiatives on social media. Shelby Glover, Coordinator of the MYC, emphasized this change.
“We’re asking the Mayor’s Youth Council to utilize their social media channels to push voter registration,” she said. “They are making graphics and QR codes to put on posters around their schools to easily access the voter registration website.”
Other local organizations, such as Moms for Social Justice, adopted this virtual form of political activism and heavily utilized their social media accounts to promote voter registration as well.
Despite having digital drives to increase political participation, social media is not proving to be enough. In a recent study by the Brennan Center, it was determined that voter registration in 2020 has “declined by an average of 38 percent” in a sample of states contrasted with their 2016 registration rates. Similarly, an August survey from the Pew Research Center calculated that only half of U.S. registered voters believed it would be easy to vote in the upcoming presidential election, due to the impacts of COVID-19.
As a result of decreased in-person political engagement strategies in Chattanooga, individual organizations are responding to calls of increased assistance needed with local polling stations. Chattanooga Votes, a city initiative aiming to increase political participation, has expressed the quickly growing demand for assistance with voting processes seeing that 90% of poll workers are over the age of 70 and vulnerable to COVID-19.
The Mayor’s Youth Council is working directly to fill this gap, as Glover affirmed that she and other members in leadership positions of the MYC were encouraging their peers and fellow classmates to sign up to work the polls.
“We have quite a few MYC members who have signed up to work the polls on Election Day,” Glover said.
While this year’s voter registration rates have been down from previous years, the importance of political participation has grown stronger. The Pew Center’s recent survey discovered that almost 85% of registered voters believed that it matters who wins the presidential election. This response rate is higher than any that has been reported of the same question asked during presidential election seasons dating back to 2000.
The Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, a local organization prioritizing the necessity of civil rights, pressed the importance of political participation on their website. They acknowledged that voting is crucial for democracy and that jobs, education, health, housing and justice depend on it.
After a politically charged summer full of protests, community organizing, and the development of groups dedicated to fighting oppression in Chattanooga, such as I Can’t Breathe CHA, solidifying community growth through electoral turnout is crucial.
The Hamilton County Election Commission is still accepting applications to become a poll worker during this election season. Applications are open to residents above the age of 16, while those above the age of 18 must be registered voters in Hamilton County. Early voting begins on Wednesday, Oct. 14 and continues through Thursday, Oct. 29. The presidential election will be held on Nov. 3.