Election Commission rejects Thompson-Boling as early voting location, for now

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The Knox County Election Commission rejected an offer Friday to use Thompson-Boling Arena as a location for early voting, which is set to begin Wednesday, Oct. 14.

The 3-2 vote followed a fervent plea by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman to make the switch from the Baker Center. She cited the current campus location’s limited space, parking, and the advantages to the larger venue, including name familiarity: “When you say Thompson-Boling Arena, everybody knows where that is,” she said.

Plowman called the offer, which came with no financial strings attached, civic duty, and said the university is committed to increasing the number of Tennesseans who exercise their voting right. The chancellor also offered security, storage space, administrative assistance, and logistical help.

The university offered to change locks on the venue, so only authorized election officials would have access.

“The university wants to play a role in helping the voter turnout. Our students are behind this, our faculty and staff. The Baker Center is willing to do everything necessary,” Plowman added.

Keely Sage, a UTK senior, spoke about data that highlights barriers young voters face with voting and a need to keep turnout momentum, among her age group, going. “Democracy is not a partisan issue. This is something people from both sides of the aisle care about. We would just like to increase student voter turnout, and from our community in general,” she said.

Uriah Richey, a UTK graduate, cited the transportation problem associated with students getting out to vote. “Even though there are other polling locations in Knoxville, and not too far from campus, transportation has been and continues to be a huge barrier to prevent people from voting.” On the pandemic and social distancing guidelines, she said, “It’s doable at the Baker Center, “but it’s pushing it.”

Randy Pace spoke against the idea, primarily due to timing. He argued that given early voting begins in fewer than two weeks, the switch could stand to do the opposite of increased access to voters. “I’m concerned about disenfranchising people who were prepared to go to the Baker Center to vote,” Pace said. Given locations and times have already been published, he advocated for considering the change in future elections instead.

He also rebutted claims that the added space offered by Thompson-Boling would make for a safer environment, given the threat of COVID-19. He mentioned county election staff have done a “phenomenal” job in the previous two elections, which he said showcased their time and effort.

The administrator of elections Chris Davis expressed an interest in the idea of the new location, but also shared concern over timing. Davis said staff is working 12-hour days preparing locations for early voting, a task he said comes with many details.

Challenges they face include COVID-19 changes, thousands of new voter registration applications, and an unprecedented number of absentee ballots.

Commissioner Bob Bowman said prior to the vote “I think Thompson-Boling makes complete sense as an early voting location during COVID times; however, that idea should have been put for a vote in March, April, June, or the two times we met in July. It’s too late. We don’t have the time to do it.”

Though Bowman was one of the three against the proposal, he did ask how the university would handle 100 people walking in without masks and whether they’d be removed from university property. Plowman replied we’d provide them a mask. She said no one would be removed from the voting center.

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