First balloting in presidential election begins this week

By , Daily Memphian Updated: October 04, 2020 4:00 AM CT | Published: October 04, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Shelby County voters begin casting their ballots in the presidential general election this week as the first batch of absentee ballots from the Shelby County Election Commission go in the mail Monday, Oct. 5. Monday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. is also the deadline to register to vote in the most popular election cycle in Shelby County politics by voter turnout.

The Daily Memphian Politics Podcast: Political consultant Steven Reid

Following close behind on the election calendar is the Oct. 14 opening of early voting in Shelby County that runs through Oct. 29. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 27.

The Nov. 3 election day is less than a month away.

The last weekend to register to vote saw registration volunteers competing for the best places at shopping centers with such parking lot vendors as those selling essential oils and clothing as well as curbside car detailing.

The League of Women Voters had a spot Saturday inside Novel book store in Laurelwood shopping center in East Memphis.

A lone table outside the Southbrook Town Centre in Whitehaven had few customers Saturday as the nearby Kroger parking lot was jammed with few shoppers rounding the corner to get to Southbrook.

The day before, a group of Democratic state representatives led a press conference to encourage voter registration as a way to win passage of new domestic violence laws in Nashville.

As the press conference set up, an organizer wasted no time in making the pitch to two shoppers passing by.

“Are you registered to vote?” she asked. The man and woman nodding that they were. “And you are going to vote, aren’t you?” she said in a louder and more lingering tone. Both voters said they would.

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The previous weekend an NAACP effort outside the Midtown Cash Saver was pursuing an ambitious goal of 1,000 for the day’s work.

Ian Randolph and two other volunteers checking to make sure voters knew they could change their addresses if necessary as well as register to vote if they weren’t. Randolph was also working a busy parking lot.

Voter registration efforts in the last two weeks have become the closest thing to an active presidential campaign as the Biden and Trump campaigns are focused on nothing but a group of six to seven battleground states where the outcome is close or in doubt.

Even the traditional slate of Republican and Democratic surrogate candidates, which non-battleground states like Tennessee usually see, has been missing.

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Partisans in both camps expect Shelby County will be carried by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as the state and its 11 electoral votes is taken by Republican president Donald Trump.

Tennessee has been a red or Republican state since the 2000 presidential general election when Republican nominee George W. Bush took Democratic nominee Al Gore’s home state.

After 20 years and a fifth presidential election approaching, a new political generation is questioning that.

“It’s really not,” Democratic campaign consultant Kenneth Taylor of Memphis told The Daily Memphian when asked about the state’s red status. “We’re just a nonvoting state, especially as it relates to Shelby County.”

Taylor is putting that premise to the test with his work this campaign season for Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Marquita Bradshaw of Memphis.

Campaign consultant Steven Reid, meanwhile, looks at the voters who show up. Reid’s clients in local elections have included Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and former city council member Kemp Conrad — from both sides of the partisan divide in nonpartisan city elections.

“We will look at past voting history to see whether or not we’re going to include some in our target list if they are likely to turnout,” Reid told The Daily Memphian. “So we’ll add people who are newly registered because they may have registered because they are fired up about an upcoming election.”

The Daily Memphian Politics Podcast: Political consultant Steven Reid

Those on the rolls but who haven’t voted in a few election cycles aren’t targeted for phone banking or direct mail campaign pieces or text messages and social media by that strategy.

The strategy even extends to door-to-door campaigning which has become much rarer during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pre-pandemic campaigns had long relied on using digital databases for a voter’s history to determine which doors to knock on and which to pass by.

The most recent election commission report from September on voter rolls in Shelby County shows there are 583,080 voters countywide. The tally represents 85.3% of the 2010 U.S. Census count of 682,902 Shelby Countians who are ages 18 and up.

Ballot Basics: Shelby County voters by the numbers

Because voters do not indicate a political party when they register to vote and instead indicate that preference when they vote, the report doesn’t have a breakdown of Democrats and Republicans.

Voters also do not have to indicate their race in Tennessee which makes the “other” or “blank” category the largest in the racial breakdown for Shelby County. It accounts for 50.2% of all voters countywide. Black voters are 29.1% of the base with 20.3% white.

Reid says his assumption is that the 292,750 voters in the blank/other category reflect the racial split among local voters who identify as either black or white.

“It’s going to cut along the lines of the actual (racial) demographic break to some degree,” he said. “I think you get closer to a 50-50 break.”

The demographics in the report show most of the county’s voters — 57.8% — are women. Almost two-thirds — 65% —live in Memphis with another 11.7% living in unincorporated Shelby County. The remaining 23% live in the six suburban towns and cities with Bartlett having the largest share at 41,817 or 7.17%.

Voters age 28-37 are the largest group by age with 110,777 or 18.9% of the county’s total voting base. That is followed by 97,053 who are 58-67 and account for 16.6% of the voters and 96,140 who are 48-57 and make up 16.4% of the total.

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“When I look at the voter rolls I always think it’s quite an inflated number over what actually probably is a registered and legitimate voter,” Reid said. “A lot of people do move out of the county or are deceased and they are still on the roll.”

The age breakdown in the election commission report shows 23 votes between the ages of 108 and 117, which would make at least one Shelby County voter the oldest person in the world if true.

The numbers in the base show a wealth of millennial voters and younger voters in general.

Reid says there will probably be more voters in that age range who show up for the presidential general election.

“But you can’t underestimate the fact that older voters are always more motivated to turn out and vote than younger voters will ever be,” he said. “I think you’ll still see the 55-plus demographic at your highest turnout level even in a presidential race.”

Taylor says older voters like his parents and grandparents who were part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s vote “out of a sense of duty.”

For younger voters there is a very different motivation.

“In order to get participation from younger demographics, it really has to be someone they are inspired by,” Taylor said. “They vote because they want to win and that’s very, very different.”

It’s also a shift from Barack Obama’s historic 2008 campaign for president that Taylor sees as drawing voters who were willing to vote for him even if he wasn’t given much of a chance early in his bid for the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton.

Obama’s stature in Shelby County in that primary, which has the largest Republican as well as Democratic base of any single county in the state, is also part of Taylor’s view of the difference between what the voter base looks like and what the turnout looks like.

“If you were able to increase the participation in Shelby County by just 30 percent then Shelby County within itself has the ability to sway any election in the state if all other numbers essentially hold,” he said. “I think that is very telling when you look at the demographics and how Shelby County and our vote totals are viewed around the state.”

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Reid sees a high turnout in the county’s Republican suburbs as well as the Democratic city precincts.

“All eyes should always be on Shelby County when you are looking at garnering a huge block of votes,” Reid said.

But Reid sees habits where Taylor sees room for improvement.

Reid detected a difference in the August elections this year in turnout with Republican and white voter turnout countywide down slightly and more African-American and Democratic voters turning out.

The key evidence to that point was Democratic Joe Brown’s wide margin of victory over Republican Paul Boyd in the only countywide race on the ballot this year — General Sessions Court Clerk.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our election coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do


2020 Elections Steven Reid Kenneth Taylor Shelby County Election Commission

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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