Sunday column: Some voters inspired, others uninspired by amendment campaign

Pages from a Tennessee political notebook on election eve (almost), 2014:

Going by participation in early voting, it seems that Tennessee turnout has tumbled more dramatically this year than in a more modest 2012 decline that has drawn some recent national attention.

A federal General Accounting Office study found voter turnout generally declined nationwide in 2012, but the dropoff was greater in Tennessee and Kansas, two states holding their first elections since enacting laws requiring a photo ID for voting.

In Tennessee, the 2012 drop was about 4.5 percent when compared to 2008, the last presidential election year. This year the early voting decline, when compared to the last non-presidential election year of 2010, is approaching 20 percent.

The GAO concluded the 2012 Tennessee decline, more pronounced among black and youthful voters, could be attributed to the then-new photo ID law. Secretary of State Tre Hargett disputed the conclusion, in part because the comparable states had some hot-button issues on the ballot to drive up voter interest that was lacking in the Volunteer State.

As an example, he cited Alabamians voting that year in a referendum on repeal of state constitution provisions, already unenforceable under federal court rulings, including one that requires segregated schools. (It was narrowly defeated.).

This year, Tennessee has four constitutional amendments on the ballot, including one on the hot-button issue of abortion. So why hasn’t that inspired an uptick instead of a tumble in Tennessee turnout?

A psychologist acquaintance, also a political junkie, suggests that the amendment may actually be a turnoff for a substantial number of voters. While inspiring passionate views among activists on both sides, others are ambivalent or conflicted enough that they prefer to avoid discussing the topic, much less vote on it. While Amendment 1 inspires some people to get to the polls and vote, it is a turnoff to turning out for others.

n Two of the amendment referendums present voters with the odd situation of dealing with issues pretty much on their own, without coaching from TV and radio ads, direct mail attack pieces or anything else.

Amendment 3, which would prohibit a state income tax, has prompted formation of campaign committees both pro and con. The two Amendment 3 committees combined have not reached six-figure spending — excluding one curiosity.

That was the Yes on 3 committee reporting as an “in-kind” contribution the $200,000 spent by a Missouri company for a 200-foot “airbus” in Nashville where about 200 people looked at it and heard speeches on the evils of a state income tax.

The Amendment 3 opponents have had their equally curious, albeit dramatically less expensive, event — a series of movie showings at different locations around the state loosely tied to a “teleconference” where people talked about the evils of taking decisions away from future generations and forcing them to rely on sales taxes or a new statewide property tax.

Amendment 3 probably will pass since it refers to banning a state income tax and most folks have heard about that and don’t like it. A Republican who opposes it says it’s a bad idea, though, because it will deprive future politicians of the opportunity to vow their everlasting opposition to an income tax. In the long term, he says, it could be worse than losing President Barack Obama as an attack target (and voter turnout generator) in 2016.

n The average voter, showing up at the polls out of a sense of civic responsibility without prior research, will likely be utterly perplexed by Amendment 4. There are no campaign committees either for or against, thus zero voter education.

The question he or she will face: Do you want to insert USC 501(c)19 into the state Constitution? The logical average citizen response — “Huh?” — may inspire many to skip answering the question and lead to failure of the amendment, given the requirement that constitutional amendments be approved by a majority of those voting in the governor’s race.

Then again, only the most enlightened and passionate voters are turning out this year and they will figure this out to make the right decision. Who cares what all those other folks think? They aren’t voting, with or without a photo ID