In August 2017, Katie Cahill was new to Knoxville and to her job as associate director of the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She recalls trying to vote in a local election for a seat on the city council. “I was registered to vote,” she said, “and near the end of the day I tried to vote downstairs at the center, but they said my precinct voted at Fort Sanders School. So I didn’t end up voting, because I was new to the area and did not realize I lived just two blocks from that polling place.
“That election ended up in a 488–488 tie. I realized that I could have been the decision maker, but I also asked myself, ‘If I can’t figure out how to vote, how can I expect the students I’m teaching to know how to vote?’”
Around that time Cahill saw a study by the Pew Research Foundation showing that Tennessee had been last in the nation in voter turnout in 2014 midterm, a year when just over 15 percent of eligible UT students voted. “I thought, we’ve got to do better.”
The Baker Center has always been a hub of activity in election years, hosting speakers, debate-watching parties, and information sessions. But Cahill resolved to add more dimensions to UT’s election-year preparations after she was contacted by Kelley Elliott, then with Civic Tennessee and now with the Tennessee Campus Democracy Network.
“She called me,” said Cahill. “That is, a personal phone call, unlike so many civic groups that had flooded me with emails.” Cahill shared with Elliott her confusion at the complexities of voting in Tennessee. “I told her that if I feel this way, I imagine other people feel the same way. In February 2018, Kelley and I, along with Joy Fulkerson of East Tennessee State University, organized and hosted the Campus Civic Summit.”
They gathered teams from 14 institutions of higher education and organizations including the National League of Women Voters, Students Learn Students Vote, the Andrew Goodman Foundation, and the Campus Vote Project, who instructed attendees about Tennessee voting laws and strategies to get students engaged in voter education and participation. Nancy Thomas, director of Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, described the data for student registration and voting rates at campuses across the nation that had been gathered by Tufts’s National Study for Learning and Voter Engagement. Along with the numbers, NSLVE examines campus climates for political learning and engagement and shows correlations between specific student learning experiences and voting.
“Coming out of the summit,” said Cahill, “we resolved to make a plan for the campus. It couldn’t be one organization or individual. We needed a large buy-in.”
Cahill reached out to student leaders, organizations, staff, faculty, and administrators to form the Vols Vote Coalition. “The goal was to make sure the campus was ready—and everyone on campus was ready—for the election,” explained Cahill. “We had regular meetings, created a shared calendar and a social media account, and sent out packets to first-year-studies instructors containing enough voter registration forms for every kid in the class.”
One of the key partners was Donna Braquet, a librarian with University Libraries. She created an informational website with guides on how to register and vote for both in-and out-of-state students and step-by-step videos showing how to fill out registration forms. “Libraries have always been a cornerstone of democracy,” said Braquet. “When I found out about the need for information on voting, I knew that the libraries had an important duty to help students and the campus community.”
“Participation doubled on campus in 2018,” said Cahill. “The state of Tennessee also did much better in voter turnout. But we are still in the bottom 10 nationally because other states increased their turnout too.”
The Baker Center partnered with Vanderbilt University for a second summit. Last spring, in the final in-person event the Baker Center hosted before the COVID-19 lockdown, a third summit took place, held in conjunction with Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Memphis.
Because of Cahill and others’ efforts at UT, the Vols Vote Coalition put together a comprehensive voting guide, which is accessible at volsvote.utk.edu. The guide is also embedded in the university’s Canvas course-management platform, so it fits in with online learning and is available to all students.
“Dr. Cahill pulled me into the conversation in July,” said Student Government President Karmen Jones. “From that point we had a group that met weekly or biweekly.” The coalition included SGA members, law students from the Black Law Students Association, Baker Center Ambassadors, and staffers from the Jones Center for Leadership and Service, the Center for Career Development and Academic Exploration, the Center for Student Engagement, the Office of Multicultural Student Life, the Student Union, UT Athletics, and UT Libraries.
“The first thing we accomplished was to get campus approved by the Knox County election board as an early voting location,” said Jones.
Through the October 5 deadline for registering in Knox County, the coalition is focused on registration. “For the past two weeks,” explained Jones, “we have set up at the Frieson Black Cultural Center and the Student Union and registered students on a Chromebook. We walk them through the steps to make sure they’re registered to vote in Knox County.”
Coalition members, realizing that personal interaction is the best way to persuade a person to register and vote, are initiating conversations across campus. “Students designed a game to increase those conversations,” said Jon Ring, director of student programs at the Baker Center. “Essentially, points are awarded for the number of people texted or called in 30 minutes encouraging them to register and vote.”
Assistant Professor Mary Laube of the School of Art will lead a group of faculty and students in painting the rock on three dates—October 5, the deadline for registering; October 14, the start of early voting; and November 3, Election Day.
After October 5, said Jones, “We are working on our plans to get students to the polls.” That includes early voting, October 14 through 29, and Election Day itself.
“Once they are registered or move their registration,” added Cahill, “students need to think, ‘How do I make a plan to vote?’ You have to make a plan, because it can be very involved. Students assume they know what to do and where to go. In fact, you have to know where to go and what to bring. We recommend students to bring the approved photo identification and if they have it, their voter registration card, which includes the location of their voting precinct.” Only federal- and Tennessee-issued photo IDs such as passports, driver’s licenses, and state ID cards are accepted as voter identification in Tennessee; university IDs are not accepted.
The Baker Center will be a voting location on election day, but for only for residents of a certain area of campus. As Cahill discovered in 2017, on election day students must vote at the site for their designated precinct, be it at the City–County Building downtown, Fort Sanders School, or another site.
“Voting behavior is something that sticks with you throughout your lifetime,” said Cahill. “And it’s something that should start here. It’s very important to support civic habits that are part of being a healthy citizen, and that’s what the Vols Vote Coalition is trying to do.”
Learn more about Vols Vote.
Register to vote online (Tennessee residents).
Register to vote online (for non-Tennessee residents).
Katie Cahill (865-974-8681, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Brooks Clark (865-974-5471, email@example.com)