CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Interest in the midterm election is at a fever pitch in much of the country, with both Democrats and Republicans far more passionate than they’ve been in more than a decade.
Could this be the year that Tennessee’s Montgomery County shows up to vote?
Located northwest of Nashville along the Kentucky border, this county often has one of the lowest voting rates in the state – in a state that often has one of the lowest rates in the country, and in a country that has one of the lowest rates in the world, trailing most developed nations.
During the divisive 2016 presidential election, Montgomery County registered its lowest turnout in the past six presidential elections. Of residents who were old enough to vote, just 42 percent actually did, according to a Washington Post analysis. Meanwhile, the national rate was 61 percent and statewide was 51 percent, according to the U.S. Elections Project. Historically, those numbers fall in midterm elections.
“I had no reason to,” said Austin Batey, 25, a call-center operator and libertarian who didn’t vote in the 2012 or 2016 presidential elections and doesn’t plan to vote in November. “I just don’t feel I can change politics. Or, if I could help change it, I’d just be voting for someone whose solutions I don’t agree with.”
He continued: “For every one thing I like about a politician, there are 10 things I don’t like. Take Trump, I like his tax cuts but then he’s jacking up the deficit . . . it’s trading off one evil for another. . . . I’ll just stay at home and not have my blood pressure raised.”
He’s not alone.
The reasons for not voting may vary by location but feature similar strains of disillusionment and skepticism. Tennessee has harsher voting restrictions in place than states with higher turnout rates, but few people cite those as reasons for not voting.
Montgomery County residents offered a list of reasons: The state mostly has been controlled by Republicans for years, so many right-leaning nonvoters say their chosen candidate doesn’t need their support to win and left-leaners say their candidate will never win. Both sides ask the same question: Why bother?
Others said they don’t care about politics – often citing its nastiness – and don’t want to pick a side. And still others said they just can’t get excited about the candidates on the ballot.
“I just think that it’s a waste of my time,” said Leo Meeks, 39, a lifelong Clarksvillian who majored in political science in college but hasn’t voted in at least eight years. Even if he did vote, he said, the winner is often determined by gerrymandered districts or the electoral college, not voters. “Because whoever’s going to get into office is not going to be influenced based on what my goals are or what my needs are or what the public’s needs,” he said. “It’s going to be driven by capitalism, by big companies . . . Money controls.”
The Washington Post analyzed voting data from more than 3,000 counties in the 2016 election and found that those with lowest rates of participation, as measured by those eligible to vote, were concentrated in a handful of states: West Virginia, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arizona.
Politically speaking, these are states that are mostly controlled by Republicans and all voted for Trump in 2016. Demographically, the counties with the lowest participating rates are often impoverished, sparsely populated and rural; their residents make less money than most Americans and are less likely to own their home or have a college degree. The wealthiest counties in the country had the highest rates of participation, while the poorest counties had the lowest rates.
“No one’s ever pushed me to do it; no one’s told me it was important,” said Zantwinette Ellis, 20, a single mother who has lived in Clarksville her entire life, and has spent most of it bouncing between homes and, in recent years, between low-paying jobs. “They pound you about jobs. ‘Get a job, get a job.’ They didn’t pound you about voting growing up. It doesn’t feel relevant to me. It’s not a big thing in my life.”
Montgomery County is home to Tennessee’s fifth largest city, Clarksville, and its poverty rate is average. Some of its residents are military members stationed at nearby Fort Campbell who remain registered to vote in their home states, although that population alone doesn’t explain the county’s low rate.
Trump won more than 56 percent of votes cast in the county in 2016, even though its demographics more closely align with those of Democratic strongholds: Its population is one of the youngest in the state, thanks to a university and the nearby military base, and it is more diverse than Tennessee as a whole, as 71 percent of residents are white, 20.5 percent are African American and 10 percent are Hispanic.
Typically, young Americans and minorities have lower voting rates than older, white residents. Homeownership and having children in the school system, among other means of rooting in civic life, generally propel people to vote, studies have shown.
Logan Russell, an 18-year-old college student studying music, said that once he is done with school, he will deeply research candidates and vote – but he’s not willing to make the investment of time now.
“I’d be one person versus millions who probably have spent less time thinking about their vote than I have,” Russell said. “We make point-zero-infinite percentage difference. I can do more by spending that time helping a friend out. I mean, really, that’s helping their life more than voting for somebody who may or may not be pressured into voting for something I may or may not like.”
Democrats and Republicans have pushed to change Tennessee’s embarrassingly low standing in the nation when it comes to voter participation.
Before the Oct. 9 registration deadline, activist groups across the state held registration drives. But they also used a tool deemed more effective: talking up voting to their relatives, friends, co-workers and people they encounter in their communities.
A leader of the county GOP wrote personal letters to everyone she knows who doesn’t regularly vote. The executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project handed out fliers promoting voter registration when he stopped for gas or food. A transgender college student posted links to voter registration information whenever a friend complained about politics or the president on Facebook. When members of Clarksville Indivisible, a liberal grass-roots organization, met for lunch at a Mediterranean restaurant downtown, they asked their two servers if they were registered to vote. A member of the group said she has been registering members of her mosque and recently helped to register a salesman who called her home with an offer to replace her windows.
But the results have been sobering at times. The activists have been surprised by the number of people they have encountered who have never voted and proudly want to continue that streak. According to data obtained by The Post, this year’s final registration tally is 109,923 – barely an increase over the 108,538 registered in 2016.
“I’m struggling. I mean, what do you say to someone who says, ‘I don’t vote,’ ” said Karen Reynolds, a Clarksville Indivisible organizer. She became politically active in early 2017 when Tennessee state lawmakers considered legislation that would limit the rights of LGBT individuals, including her son.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Clarksville Indivisible and other activist groups set up a voter registration booth at Austin Peay State University and registered more than 50 students to vote.
Dozens of students said that they plan to vote in the midterm election this fall – but few could name any of the statewide candidates, even those in the contested Senate race between Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Democrat Phil Bredesen, the state’s governor from 2003 to 2011. Many others said they have no plans to vote.
“I would rather not vote in something I don’t know about,” a freshman nursing major said as she had lunch with classmates. “If I voted, I would probably just vote however my parents voted.”
Another young woman at her table agreed: “I’m not into politics.”
Sitting nearby, D’Andrea “Dede” Holloway, 20,said she has no interest in voting because she doesn’t believe that politicians from either party can attain any of the things that they promise. In 2016, she found Trump’s promises shallow and empty, especially coupled with proposals that she considered anti-immigrant. During the Democratic primaries, she loved the message of Bernie Sanders and was angered by how she felt he was treated by Democratic Party officials.
“I’ve thought about voting, but I just don’t want to put my faith in a person,” said Holloway, who is from Knoxville and is studying early childhood development and social work.
Mike Rittenberry – a 58-year-old former drug addict and born-again Christian who owns a tire shop decorated with signs reading “Honk for Jesus” and “Jesus is Coming Back” – similarly would rather put his faith in God than a politician.
“I don’t know who to believe or who not to believe when it comes to the president and senators and Washington and this and that. I just put it all in God’s hands,” said Rittenberry, an ex-felon who has never explored having his voting rights restored. “I know God is really the one who’s running this country. I really believe God has placed President Trump there for a reason.”
In keeping with statistics showing lower participation during nonpresidential elections, several Clarksville residents who voted in 2016 said they don’t plan to do so this fall.
Blanca Zamarron, a 29-year-old restaurant manager at the El Toro Mexican taqueria, said that she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but hasn’t seen her life change much under Trump’s leadership, so she doesn’t think voting in the midterms this fall is “a big thing.”
And Rachelle Batey – who is married to Batey, the call center operator – said that she plans to join her husband in not voting this year because politics has become too divisive. One of her close friends defriended her on Facebook after they disagreed about the allegations of sexual abuse against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“I just stay away from it all,” said Batey, 27, a former massage therapist who home-schools her two children and usually votes Republican, as she did for Trump in 2016. “I’m one of the biggest fence sitters and sometimes I feel like I’m alone on my little fence. These days, you’re either right or you’re wrong. Well, I like some things Republicans do, I like some things Democrats do. I view myself as a feminist, but I see some feminism is getting turned into hatred. So I can’t vote this time.”
Batey recalled going into the voting booth with her father, a Southern Baptist preacher, when she was a child. But now, she said, it’s all too exhausting.
“I’m one of those people who believes if you don’t vote, you can’t criticize, because you don’t put your voice in,” she said. “But now I’m done with it. This time I don’t want to put my voice in.”
The Washington Post’s Scott Clement, Reuben Fischer-Baum, Jon Gerberg and Ted Mellnick contributed to this report.