After the prospect of convenience voting centers in Blount County sparked controversy last month, the county branch of the League of Women Voters hosted a town hall meeting Feb. 17 with elections officials from Rutherford County, the first county in Tennessee to use the centers.
More than 50 people tuned in to the meeting — several of whom serve on the Blount County Commission, which decided not to vote on the centers during its January meeting.
Commissioners pulled from the meeting agenda a resolution to adopt convenience voting centers, which would give voters the ability to vote at any precinct and potentially halve the number of polling places, after County Attorney Craig Garrett said the move would be outside the commission’s authority.
Tennessee state law T.C.A. § 2-3-101 leaves the authority to designate or change voting locations with county election commissions, and the Blount County Election Commission favored enacting convenience voting centers with a super majority vote in December.
Blount County Administrator of Elections Susan Knopf, who spoke at the town hall meeting, said the goal of the centers is not to limit voter accessibility, but rather, to expand it.
“This is about voter convenience first and foremost. If we can get more voters than typically vote on Election Day, that’s what the League of Women Voters want and we want as well,” Knopf said.
But many people are concerned that reducing the number of polling places would prevent people from voting and inconvenience those who do.
County Commissioner Jeff Jopling posed questions about the accessibility of the convenience centers for his constituents, many of whom reside in the Townsend area.
“I think just because of the size of my district, it does make us a little unique in that,” he said. “I would like before (the commission) meeting to get some clarification if they do indeed have plans to make sure there is a voting center in Townsend.”
The municipalities of Louisville, Rockford and Townsend passed resolutions opposing the move and encouraging the County Commission not to approve the plan.
Rutherford County officials, however, say the centers have worked seamlessly.
Alan Farley, administrator of elections for Rutherford County, said voters love the system.
“If I was to tell the voters of Rutherford County that we’re going back to the old format, I would literally have to leave the county because they would run me out of here,” Farley said.
Since Rutherford enacted convenience voting centers in 2018, Farley said there have been more accessible voting locations for commuters, less money spent to employ poll workers and decreased confusion surrounding which precinct matches which addresses.
Rutherford County, home to Tennessee’s sixth-largest city Murfreesboro, is obviously different from Blount, which is largely rural and has 200,000 fewer residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Despite these differences, Farley said convenience voting centers could benefit counties like Blount.
“Take the numbers out of it,” he said. “I know people in our surrounding counties, which are small counties. They’re just as busy. ... Everybody’s on the go, and so that is the biggest plus for us — the convenience of voting anywhere in the county.”
The 2018 gubernatorial election, the first in which Rutherford County used the centers, saw a 14.4% increase in voters over the November 2016 election.
Since 2018, Wilson, Williamson and Monroe counties have enacted the centers.
League of Women Voters of Rutherford County former President Leslie Collum said using convenience centers is simply having early voting on Election Day.
“What we have found in Rutherford County is more voters vote during early voting than during Election Day,” she said. “That’s what works for them. ... That system is a good plan for this community and has worked so well, and now we let them do that on Election Day.”
Knopf repeatedly has asserted the centers would be an extension of early voting, which has seen an uptick in popularity in Blount County over the past few years.
Since the centers did not make it to a vote at last month’s commission meeting, voting in Blount County will stay the same for now, with early voting locations and current precincts still accessible.
The earliest convenience voting centers could be incorporated into Blount County, Knopf said, would be 2024.