Think tank Think Tennessee cuts through spin and provides nonpartisan, useful and actionable data for the state.
While they share a title, the differences between national legislators and their statehouse counterparts are vast. A big one is the amount of available staff to spend time researching and poring over data to use when crafting legislation or dealing with constituent concerns. Put simply, state officials don't have the people, time or money to dive into what can be complex research. Often, they rely on outside advocacy groups and think tanks to provide them with facts and figures. Therein can lie the problem, especially in a state that tilts heavily toward one side of the political spectrum or another, says Shanna Singh Hughey, president of Think Tennessee, a think tank that began crunching numbers in 2017 and recently released an updated, large-scale batch of data assessing where Tennessee and Tennesseans stand on issues ranging from health to voter participation.
“We’re trying to empower local and state elected officials to make public policy that gives people a real shot at opportunity,” Hughey says, who has seen the vast infrastructure United States senators, for instance, have to deal with policy issues. “I had a career at the federal level working as a lawyer for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. It’s very different at the state level.”
She got an eyeful of just how different things can be when she relocated to the Volunteer State with her Nashville-born husband and began working with then-Mayor Karl Dean. While the state’s larger population-center officials had smaller versions of the data-compiling and fact-checking infrastructure she’d grown accustomed to, she saw that the vast majority of Tennessee’s 95 counties, and their elected leaders, did not.
“These officials are representing a lot of folks, and doing a good job, but they have no policy staff,” she says. “They are part-time legislators with other day jobs, and they may only have two staff members to help them keep straight a schedule that includes hearings, votes and constituent meetings. It’s very hard for them to focus on research.”
Enter ThinkTennessee, which hopes to take its place with the many other organizations feeding elected officials information. Many are single-issue focused, and most have a political bent to some degree. Hughey insists that ThinkTennessee is about actionable data, not a particular ideology.
“We take top-notch research and policy analysis and get that information to policymakers, the media, nonprofit organizations and citizens,” she says. “When we looked around Tennessee, we saw a lot of libertarian and socially conservative organizations, but not very much happening in what former Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper calls ‘the great big middle.’ He always had the idea of creating a true ideological marketplace, so that every Tennessean is represented, and voters can make more informed choices.
To that end, she says Think Tennessee will take the numbers it has now assembled, and will continue to curate, and get them in front of legislators not to push a particular agenda that some might feel is too progressive (and others not enough, politics being what they are), but to help them devise legislation and public policy that has cross-party appeal and “can move the ball forward in real and significant ways.”
There’s a lot to do, because in many, if not most, of its 100 rankings, Tennessee is almost always in the bottom half. A snapshot: voter turnout, 47th; voter registration, 44th; opioid prescriptions, 49th. On the plus side, and these are big pluses, Tennessee is 8th in high-school graduation, 5th in cost of living and 12th in unemployment.
“We began last year with our State of the State Dashboard and now have released our 2018 update so you can see some changes,” Hughey says. “We wanted to get some sense of how we stack up on 100 things that matter most; where we could do better, where we’re doing really well. If we can get and find categories where Tennessee consistently ranks below most others, then maybe those are good areas to start work.”
Getting Tennesseans registered to vote and then to actually do it looms large on the to-do list, and having this kind of one-stop source of data is very helpful in efforts to change that, says Lisa Quigley, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper.
“When we saw that after the 2014 midterm elections we had fallen to 50th in voter participation, we began asking ourselves what we could do,” Quigley says. “Now we’re in another midterm election year, and unless something changes, we may see those same, dismal numbers. But what could we, as a government office, do? We can’t be involved in campaigns or elections or partisan entities, so how can we engage?”
The answer was Project Register, which aims to address the unregistered population. It’s higher in Tennessee than in other states due to a 30-day advance registration requirement, which throws younger voters who are used to technology that makes most every transaction instantaneous.
“What we are doing is encouraging people to register to vote at a key point,” Quigley says. “Older people are voting; those under 50 are not; and those under 30 really are not. What do they have in common? For starters, most of them have a job, or belong to organizations or social groups. Some are in school. So, we began the work of getting into those places so that voter registration could happen.”
In Tennessee, 17-year-olds can register, so school outreach began. Representatives from the Davidson County Election Commission and state Sen. Steve Dickerson’s office joined staff and volunteers from Cooper’s office and others to visit public and private schools to register those upcoming voters.
“It’s a nonpartisan activity, and since in Tennessee you don’t register by party, it’s a simple process,” Quigley says. “We increased voter registration in high schools by 85 percent, and that spurred us to get out of the schools. We’re in a city with 3.2 percent unemployment, so lots of people are working. In the past session the state legislature set up online voter registration, so for the first time we can get people registered using their phone or laptop computer. We engaged with the largest employer in Davidson County and told them two things: One, we’re 50th in voter participation, and two, we now have a tool in online voting. Can you add that information to you onboarding process? Will you help us get them to register or update their registration?
Employers answered with gusto, and now almost 200 of them, covering more than 200,000 employees, are making voter registration a part of the workplace. And with five elections in a short window of time, the proof will be easy to collect and evaluate, Quigley says.
“There are lots of chances to get people interested in voting, and now we can find out if they are taking advantage of registering much more easily. We really hope that businesses all over the state will be inspired by what we’re doing, and we are hopeful that when ThinkTennessee and other groups pull new data, that our numbers are much improved.”
Change is incremental, and even something as basic as having two years’ worth of data to study trends is helpful because now that information can be utilized in policy briefs and other action plans. That’s why Hughey says ThinkTennessee hopes to continue its efforts for the long term and thus be a source of information to elected officials and others who want to study and change trends.
“If they, and we, can get everyday Tennesseans interested in these areas where we lag the national numbers, then they may get interested in the work of the General Assembly and other bodies,” she says. “Candidates for office and those in office are helped by numbers and studies, but they can’t click through to get to the solutions.”
“We’re not positioning ourselves as subject matter experts on these issues — the state has great, nonpartisan organizations that know a lot about each of these things, and we are working with them now to write and issue briefs that discuss each of these areas in the context of what they mean for Tennessee and what can be done about them,” Hughey adds. I think we’re off to a really good start.” Curious to see where our state comes in compared to our neighbors or other geographical areas? Visit thinktennessee.org.