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Shelby County’s early-voting turnout has some seeing signs of progress

Voter advocate groups in Shelby County are celebrating the highest voter turnout in the state.

The Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher, founder of #UPTheVote901. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender Archives)

“Shelby County really turned up the vote during early voting,” said the Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher Jr., Upthevote901 organizer. “Although we are a nonpartisan voting entity, one thing is very clear to us – strategies are working.

“The NAACP and Shelby County Voter Alliance, working with one another, put boots on the ground, knocking on doors, using phone banks. The whole state must sit up and take notice.”

Early voting, which began July 15, ended on Saturday (July 30) with a phenomenal turnout, for the last day — a whopping 11,380 voters, despite shorting voting hours.

During early voting, 86,637 people, about 30 percent of the county’s registered voters cast ballots

In a midterm election cycle, the percentages are more like 10-12, according to prior voting numbers.

Ian Randolph of the Shelby County Voter Alliance listens as Linda Phillips, Shelby County administrator of elections, gives an update on turnout for the May 3 election during an early afternoon briefing at the precinct at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The New Tri-State
Defender Archives)

“The 2022 total was even better than the 2018 early voting number,” said Ian Randolph of Shelby County Voter Alliance. “In 2018, the total was 86,002. Clearly, we are making strides in Shelby County.”

Local early voting, compared to other metropolitan across the state, are impressive. In Nashville, early voters topped out at little more than 35,000; in Knoxville and Chattanooga, the numbers were even lower.

The Shelby County early vote was by far the largest of any of the state’s 95 counties, accounting for 18.1 percent of the statewide turnout.

By comparison, Davidson County posted 35,429 early voters, – Knox County 32,971 and Hamilton County 19,629.

Randolph cited a new strategy he felt helped boost Shelby County numbers.

“We increased outreach to the Hispanic community between election cycles,” said Randolph. “When Shelby County was trying to get the Hispanic community to be vaccinated, we would participate. When there was a pop-up vaccination site, we would be there to work, to volunteer.

“Then, when the election year rolled around, we already had some relationships established. People weren’t seeing us for the first time, knocking on the door saying, ‘You need to register to vote.’ We did a lot in terms of voter education and voter participation – trying to teach people how voting works and why it is important.”

Although both Fisher and Randolph run nonpartisan organizations, neither was surprised to learn that the number of requests for Democratic primary ballots over Republican primary ballot was more than 22,000.

Randolph attributed the numbers to the fact that Shelby County is largely Democratic. Fisher said the wide gap indicates something more.

“Shelby County is proving to be a hallmark of the political landscape in Tennessee,” said Fisher. “We are non-partisan, but we see the progressives trying to build a coalition in Nashville, when clearly, the hotbed is here in Memphis and Shelby County.

“As people around the state observe our numbers, I believe they will have to take Shelby County a little more seriously.”

Election Day is Thursday (Aug. 4).

Absentee voters have until 7 p.m. Thursday when polls close to have ballots delivered to the Shelby County Election Commission by mail. Tennessee law prohibits hand delivery of absentee ballots to the Election Commission.

According to the Tennessee Secretary of State records, 293,675 absentee voters requested Republican primary ballots, while 155,182 requested Democratic primary ballots.

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