Katie Cahill, associate director of the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee, Tennesseans are failing at the most basic level of civic engagement — voting.

The PEW Charitable Trust found that during the 2014 November midterm elections, Tennessee was 40th in voter registration at 74 percent of voting-age population. We were 50th in voter turnout, dead last, as just 28.5 percent made it to the polls.

Simplifying this already stark reality, seven out of 10 registered voters in this state let other people make decisions that affect their lives. A litany of reasons can be recited for this behavior. None of them good. I’m certain Cahill and her colleagues have analyzed the situation extensively. There is only one solution. Just vote.

For states such as Tennessee, which ineffectively fight low voter turnout, vote-by-mail could help boost the numbers. For that matter, citizens in all Southern states would benefit from vote-by-mail. For decades, a certain race of people have worked to prevent another race from showing up at the polls.

I briefly lived in Oregon, which became the first state to conduct its elections exclusively by mail. Oregon established vote-by-mail as the standard mechanism for voting with a ballot measure, a citizen initiative, in 1998. It’s not necessary to physically go to a polling place to vote. And for some seniors, people with disabilities, or those who are ill, it becomes impossible.

My mother lives in a retirement community in Maryville, and I am truly grateful to volunteers who bring ballots to the residents. Otherwise, most would not be able to get out and vote. A mail-in ballot would eliminate obstacles to the process.

In 2018, registered voters in Blount County look like the classic bell curve. On one end, 24 percent are 18-35 years of age, 50 percent are between 36-65, and 25 percent are over 65. No surprise there. Nationally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey, between 1984-2016, voter turnout, by age, consistently proved to be highest over age 60, followed by 45-59, then 30-44, and lastly 18-29.

Although young people are least likely to vote, they are directly affected by what is going on in our nation’s capital whether they seek further education, settle into a career or find themselves beginning a family. Accessible health care, reproductive rights, educational funding, employment and job training, the Iraq war (young soldiers are those being killed), and an assortment of environmental issues impact the young.

Over the past two years, young women joined older protesters as they realized their dignity and rights were being assaulted. This surge in political activism by women across the board, but significantly, by young women new to voting, is bound to manifest itself by increased numbers at the polls.

Some of the threats coming out of Washington to young women include: lack of support for protection from sexual assaults, right to abortion, putting children at risk through adverse legislation, eroding family economic security, undermining women’s legal rights and undermining women’s leadership opportunities.

On the other end of the voting spectrum, seniors are highly likely to turn out in large numbers to vote. Perhaps no other age group has been more imminently threatened with potentially devastating loss, at least since the 1920s, than the elderly are today.

Four issues batted around by Congress would affect virtually all people over 65, except for the wealthy. Included are Social Security, Medicare, prescription drug costs and long-term care costs. For low-income seniors, which political party controls Congress for the next two years, and thereafter, could very well determine how long they get to live.

All voters today face threats to our U.S. Constitution due to laws and policies being created by politicians without sufficient knowledge or ability to lead. “We the people” can raise our voices, but the only real power we, collectively, possess is through our individual vote.

Our democracy has worked for 242 years, but it could very well dissolve if the masses become complacent, indifferent or worse, blind to those who seek to bring it down.

J. Laurie Byrne is a retired writer and photographer who lives in Maryville.

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