Tullahoma State Sen. Janice Bowling has introduced legislation that would eliminate the early voting period and un-digitize the voting process for all Tennesseans.
Bowling filed the bill (SB1510) for introduction in the Tennessee General Assembly Feb. 11. According to Bowling, the impetus for filing the fill was to address concerns over the integrity of the state’s elections.
“There are a lot of people across the nation, but also right here in Tennessee that are concerned that the integrity of the vote is compromised, partly due to the electronics,” she said.
The text of the bill says county election commissions “shall not use voting machines” and instead must use specially watermarked paper ballots for all elections.
“Elections must be conducted using watermarked paper ballots that are hand-marked by the voter,” the bill reads, in addition to removing all references to the early voting period.
“I like to think there’s nobody in Tennessee that would create any mischief, but this is part of the genesis of this legislation: to restore the integrity of the ballot and make sure that no one is disenfranchised; to eliminate any possibility of that disenfranchisement or lack of integrity in the ballot,” she said.
Bowling added that she has received concerns from constituents, including engineers at AEDC at Arnold Air Force Base, that electronic voting machines contain vulnerabilities.
“Once anything is on a ‘computer,’ whether it’s connected to the internet or not, it can be hacked into,” she said. “Votes can be switched. Votes can be eliminated. There’s just a lot of room for mischief.”
Of eliminating the early voting period, Bowling said it was akin to going “Back to the Future,” referencing the 1985 blockbuster.
“There was a time in the not-too-distant past where we didn’t have early vote,” she said. “People went to their precinct on Election Day and they cast their ballot, which is one of the most important things citizens can do.”
According to information from the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, more than 2 million Tennesseans cast their ballots during the two-week early voting period. More than 3 million Tennesseans cast their ballot in the presidential race, with former President Donald Trump carrying the state by nearly three quarters of a million more votes than President Joe Biden.
Eliminating the early voting period would limit Tennessee to only voting on Election Day, which is slated for the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November during election years, reducing the number of days Tennesseans could cast their ballots from 15 to one.
Early voting was introduced to Tennessee 27 years ago with the Tennessee Early Voting Act, which granted Tennesseans the right to cast their ballots for 15 days prior to Election Day. Since its passage, early voting in Tennessee has typically taken place from 20 days before Election Day to five before.
Bowling said while a “generation” of people have “grown up where it’s supposed to be convenient” to cast their ballots either during the early voting period or on Election Day, it was more important that the integrity of the vote be secured.
“There are a lot of concerns that people might have,” she said. “I’ve heard from a few people with concerns, and I’ve heard from many people who like this idea.”
Going back to solely Election Day voting would not be “foreign” to many Tennesseans, Bowling added.
“You have birthdays and holidays that are one day, so it’s not a foreign thing” she said. “Many states already allow paper ballot voting.”
Additionally, Bowling said having voters cast their ballots only at their respective precincts would likely reduce lines at the polls.
“When you’re in your own precinct, you’ve got a smaller number of voters available to vote that day than if you were aggregating the votes at one polling place or two polling places for all the early votes,” she said. “Some precincts are smaller than others, and there might be a reason to divide precincts or something if there is excessive wait times. I don’t anticipate [longer] wait times.”
Bowling’s bill does not address Election Day hours, however, so voting hours would remain the same under SB1510. She did, however, say would be open to introducing legislation in the next session of the General Assembly that would address voting hours by extending them if needed.
“I would have no trouble with that: increasing the voting hours earlier and later so that people getting off work [can vote],” she said.
Additionally, Bowling said there had been discussion about another legislator introducing legislation to make Election Day a holiday in Tennessee, though she did had not seen that bill by the Senate filing deadline.
Another aspect of the bill, Bowling said, was it would allow candidates more time to get their messages out to voters.
“If you start voting before your message is out, or you’re interrupted with early voting, a lot of people haven’t gotten their message out between almost the end of August and to the middle of October,” she said. “I think that, as a candidate, going back an Election Day [vote] helps each candidate get their message out and know that people can make an informed decision. This just allows everyone to get to know everything there is to know about the candidates to cast their ballot and know that there will be integrity in the casting of that ballot and the counting of every legal ballot that people have gone to the polls to cast.”
Of her bill, Bowling said it was “not the disruptive, terrible thing a few people have considered it would be” and contained “more positives than negatives.”
“Most people who have commented on it, they really like it,” she said. “It restores the importance of Election Day, the importance of the candidates to get their message out and have time to get their message out, the importance of the people to be able to really then make their determinations.
As of Wednesday, Feb. 17, the bill was filed and “passed on first consideration.” There is not yet a House companion bill as of Wednesday afternoon.