This election season, Please Vote Nashville is promoting voter participation with social incentives, ballot literacy.
Tennessee currently carries some of the lowest voter participation rates in the nation, but a new Nashville organization is working to change that with a unique selling point: social incentives for voting.
Please Vote Nashville is an organization created by Music City artists and musicians who hope their efforts allow Nashvillians to get excited about heading to the polls.
“We wanted to figure out how to engage Nashville and Tennessee in a greater way,” says Tristen Gaspadarek, known by her stage name Tristen, a professional musician and founding member of Please Vote Nashville. “We felt that Nashville in general didn’t have a culture of voting or a culture of discourse, and we wanted to create a way to be active and do work without telling people how to think.”
On Aug. 2, the night of the Tennessee primary elections, Please Vote Nashville and national voting campaign #iVoted teamed up to treat Nashvillians to a free show at the Mercy Lounge that featured several independent rock musicians. To get in, attendees had to provide a selfie of themselves outside of a polling location. With that, they could dance the election night away.
“We're trying to reward people who are being engaged, and we’re trying to create social value for voting,” Gaspadarek says. “As a culture, we reward all types of things. Why not add being a steward and having your voice heard?”
According to the Elections Performance Index, which was launched in 2013 by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Tennessee ranked 49th in voter turnout in the 2016 election with only 51 percent of eligible voters participating. Worse, the state ranked dead-last, 50th, in voter turnout for the 2014 midterm elections.
“We compare very unfavorably to all 49 other states,” says Lisa Quigley, the chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, who represents Tennessee’s 5th congressional district. “After that election and hitting rock bottom, we started, in our office, trying to figure out why.”
In 2017, Cooper, a Democrat, and state Sen. Steve Dickerson, a Republican, launched the nonpartisan Project Register to encourage people to vote and to assess the issues. Since its inception, more than 200 companies, universities and other organizations joined the project by encouraging their employees or members to get registered. Additionally, representatives with Cooper’s office, including Quigley, conducted research on voting in the state of Tennessee.
According to their research, the state of Tennessee has lost 200,000 voters every midterm election from 2006 to 2014. Additionally, the study shows that while the Tennessee population grew by 12 percent between 2004 and 2016, the state only saw a 1.2 percent increase in voting in that time. Tennessee also has an issue getting young people to the polls, and according to the Project Register study, one million Tennesseans who are 18 or older are not registered to vote. Additionally, 60 percent of non-voters are under the age of 45, and 38 percent of that 60 are Tennesseans age 18 to 29.
“We’re gaining people, so we should be gaining more registered voters,” Quigley says. Gaspadarek and members of Please Vote Nashville noticed the lack of young people’s involvement and sprang into action to attempt to reverse it.
Gaspadarek observed some voting traditions in Australia, during which entire cities shut down, and parties and free food were provided to voters. She wants Nashville to follow a similar model and says that Please Vote Nashville is planning a giant concert celebration for the November's general election, as well as hoping to sponsor some voting parties in the weeks before.
In addition to social incentives, the organization strives to create ballot literacy by completing “ballot-breakdowns.” Members study the candidates and elections, and information about both is provided to voters in easy, accessible ways.
“When you vote in one of these local elections, you have to know how to research, and I don’t think that most people are experienced doing this,” Gaspadarek says. “So, we try to do that work for them.”
Please Vote Nashville posts their ballot breakdowns to social media and provides sources for all of the information provided. The organization also conducts voter registration drives in order to cultivate more participation, and Gaspadarek says that these efforts have allowed for politicians in the state to be in check. “I want this city to be represented and our politicians to be held accountable,” Gaspadarek says. “We’re not trying to convince others how to think and feel but to know how you think and feel. You can’t change the world, but you can change yourself.”