Under current law, Tennessee counties hold an "early voting" period lasting about two weeks and starting about three weeks before each election. Early voting takes place at one central location; here in Lincoln County, that is the election commission office. On election day, voters cast their ballots at a number of precincts throughout the county.
The new bill calling for a "voting center" system would eliminate most precincts and open a handful of "voting centers" throughout the county. All of the "voting centers" would be open for a period leading up to election day and actually on election day.
A voter could cast his or her ballot in the county of residence, regardless of where the voter lives within that county because electronic voting systems would keep track of the voter's district.
Those in favor of the new law contend that the "voting centers" give voters the option to vote early at several different locations, rather than just one, and would encourage voters to turn out early and avoid long lines on election day. Additionally, proponents say, it would end problems of trying to find precinct workers.
"It's time for choosing the 'color DVD television' equivalent of voting," read a press release issued Monday by the Tennessee Association of County Election Offices in response to information released by Wayne B. Pruett, administrator of elections for Sumner County, who has mounted a campaign opposing the new law and has secured signatures of election officials across the state.
"Why should we be locked into a system that is antiquated and inconvenient. 'Anywhere Voting Centers' will be the wave of the future in modern voting whether Tennessee changes or not. Let's ride the wave of change and not have it forced on us."
Pruett says he is opposed to the cost of the new electronic voting systems and claims Tennessee could be the focus of an embarrassing election mishap similar to Florida's in 2000.
"The costs ... are in many cases one time costs, e.g., mailings, the hardware and software costs, phone line installations," according to the rebuttal released by the Tennessee Association of County Election Officials. "At this particular time, there is a possibility that all, if not the majority of these one-time costs, can be absorbed by the availability of the Help America Vote Act funds."
Pruett also contends that it would be unfair, if not unconstitutional, for two different counties participating in the same election, such as a senate or congressional district, to have different schedules since counties would be given the option of adopting the new system.
"Creating fewer locations is based upon the concept, 'Bigger is better'," Pruett said. "This discriminates against the smaller rural community precincts. Tennessee does not need systematic discrimination against any group of voters ... those that will have the longest distance to drive will vote less often; it is a matter of convenience or inconvenience. Eliminating election day precincts will change voter turnout percentages across counties and will impact many races for county-wide office."
"Discrimination is not an appropriate argument in this context," according to the rebuttal. "Since any resident of a particular county will have the opportunity to vote at the place of his/her choosing, there is no discrimination. All are equally as close to or as far away from the voting places in their county."
According to Pruett, election day voters have been the majority group of voters in 15 out of 15 statewide elections from August 1994 until November 2004.
"Election day precincts have been the foundation of the election process for over 75 years, and they should remain the foundation of Tennessee elections."
"Unfortunately, citizens are growing increasingly apathetic toward voting," according to the rebuttal against Pruett's arguments. "In today's world, individuals are working harder and longer hours, leaving less and less time for other things. Voting has not been a priority. The more convenient we can make voting by putting precincts where people conduct their other business, the more people will participate."
The petition opposing the new legislation includes the signatures of three Lincoln County voting officials, including Lincoln County's election registrar. Micky Lawson, chairman of the Lincoln County Election Commission, was unavailable for comment at press time.