With less than a month left to register to vote in the Oct. 3 municipal elections, voter registration organizers are working to avoid an all too familiar happening. 

More than 500,000 people are registered to vote in Shelby County, but historically only a small fraction of them actually make it to the polls.

Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher

“We don’t have a voter registration problem,” said the Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher, founder of #UpTheVote901, a nonpartisan voter initiative created to increase voter turnout. “We have a voter education problem and a voter engagement problem.”

The last day to register to vote in the upcoming election is Sept. 3. Early voting begins Sept. 13 and runs through Sept. 28.

In the last municipal election in 2015, only 28 percent of registered voters actually voted. Organizers attribute the low turnout to residents’ disconnection from the political process. 

“People will register but don’t turn out because they don’t feel adequately informed and so they don’t feel adequately engaged or empowered to turnout,” Fisher said. 

Organizers from the Memphis Branch NAACP said they’ve made it their mission to inform voters past the registration process.

“One of the big things that we started doing is hosting forums. These include forums in each city council district,” said Ian Randolph, co-chair of the chapter’s political action unit. “Educating the residents about the pressing issues and then giving them the opportunities to engage with the candidates can help increase voter turnout.”

But Fisher said civic organizers shouldn’t be the only ones to “bear the brunt of the burden.” He challenges candidates and the Shelby County Election Commission to do their part in encouraging residents to get to the polls. 

“So many people within our political infrastructure – from the Shelby County Election Commission to candidates running for office to incumbents holding office – are far too complicit in counting the number of registrations without doing the work of education and engagement,” Fisher said.

The Shelby County Election Commission hosts classes targeting voter education and restoration. However, most are conducted by request only. 

“While we host classes, to a large degree, it’s up to the candidates to motivate people to go out and vote. That’s what political party candidates do,” said Linda Phillips, administrator for the Shelby County Election Commission. “It’s my job to make it as simple and easy as possible to get people registered but it’s important that individuals and other civic organizations help to motivate people.”

Fisher agreed that candidates should play a larger role in pushing for voter turnout, but he questioned the motives of some of the contenders. 

“People are banking on low voter turnout and that’s why they can demonize some efforts to increase voter participation,” he said. 

Fisher referenced what he referred to as “backlash” regarding the People’s Convention 2019. He was one of the lead organizers for the conference that took place in June, allowing community members to engage with candidates running for city offices. 

Ahead of the convention, a survey was distributed to solicit respondents’ concerns on issues such as education, healthcare, crime and safety. The survey garnered more than 2,000 responses. Ultimately a slate of candidates was endorsed during the convention, including mayoral contender and current Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer. 

The Memphis Branch NAACP is also trying to boost turnout in an often forgotten demographic: convicted felons who are now eligible to vote after serving their sentences. Tennessee law allows most people who have a felony conviction to restore their voting rights after completing their restitution.

Recently, the group partnered with the General Session Court Clerk’s Office to assist in re-registering voters during their expungement clinics. Randolph said within the last six weeks, the group has registered more than 50 people who thought that they could never have their voting rights restored.  

“It’s not that they don’t want to vote,” he said. “It’s because many of them didn’t think that they could ever vote again.”

Randolph said there is a lot of work ahead to increase voter turnout for the upcoming election, but he’s optimistic. 

“We’re going to be knocking on doors and informing people about the upcoming forums and the registration deadline,” Randolph said. “Ultimately, we want people to know that they have the power when they exercise their right to vote.”

Fisher said that he and his team will continue reaching out to engage with voters, but he also issued a call to action to candidates running for office. 

“What would it look like if all candidates running for office got together to host a huge voter engagement event to increase voter turnout?” he asked rhetorically. “Let’s all come together to shoot for a record-setting voter turnout.”