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How might I help increase voter turnout and voter registration in Tennessee?

by Rachel Blumenstein, Vanderbilt Law '22

For my final Legal Problem Solving project, I decided to redesign the Tennessee Voter Registration Application Form. Tennessee ranks near the bottom of all states for voter turnout. Voting rights advocacy is a cause I care about, so I brainstormed ways to help increase ballot-access. I asked myself: how might I help increase voter turnout and voter registration in Tennessee?

First, I turned to brainstorming strategies we learned from my team’s design-sprints. I tried to think of as many ideas as I could without judgment or limitation. While brainstorming, I considered design mindsets, especially humble curiosity and empathy. I wanted to put myself in the shoes of a first time voter who did not have experience reading legal documents, and thought those particular mindsets would help me do that best.1

Next, I weighed the effectiveness of each idea, and considered which were the most feasible. Ultimately, I decided to redesign the voter registration application. Throughout the semester, we saw many examples of legal documents or processes redesigned to be more accessible to people who need access to legal services; why not the voter registration application? Some relatively simple, yet important, fixes can make it easier to register to vote and participate in one of democracy’s most important institutions: the elective franchise.

Quick Links (each is explained and linked below as well).

Current Registration Process

Currently, Tennesseans with Tennessee driver’s licenses can fill out an online voter registration application; newcomers to Tennessee with out-of-state identification must fill out the form linked above by hand, and mail it to their local election commission.

As you can see, the form is poorly designed, and as such, is not very accessible. It is difficult to read and understand, making it confusing to fill out. It also must be filled out by hand, so mistakes are easier to make and harder to correct. Once filled out, an applicant has to figure out which election commission he or she needs to send it to, another point in the process where mistakes are easy to make. As such, I envision a completely electronic registration process. All Tennessee residents, regardless of whether they have in-state licenses or not, should be able to register to vote easily online.

A New Process: Online Registration Survey

The new voter registration website would consist of a survey of questions that auto-fill a registration application form. The form would then be submitted to the proper election commission electronically. An analogous example would be a service like Turbotax, where the user is prompted for information in a user-friendly format, and then the site files the proper forms with local and federal agencies.  The applicant would not need to choose which election commission to send it to; the website would know which commission to forward the application to based on the applicant’s residential address.

I couldn’t find any free no-code programs to create this sort of survey for me, so I created a google slideshow that simulates it. The google slideshow simulates what the survey would look like for an eligible voter (an adult, TN resident and U.S. citizen, who does not have a felony record). You can view the simulated survey here. Click “slideshow” in the top right corner to see it in action.

In a fully functional version of the survey, users would be given specific prompts based on their answers. For example, somebody with a mailing address that differs from their residential address would be directed to enter their mailing address. The survey can also prevent ineligible voters from proceeding. For example, when somebody who won’t be 18 by the next election enters their birthdate into the survey, they will be told they are not yet eligible to register, and unable to proceed.

A Redesigned Registration Form 

Once an applicant completes the survey, their information will auto-populate on a registration form. Only election workers who process applications would see this form. Separating what the applicant sees (the survey) from what the election commissioner sees (the filled-out form) makes registering simpler for applicants. For example, the applicant is no longer distracted or confused by the “FOR COUNTY ELECTION COMMISSION USE ONLY” section on the old application.

The new form also benefits the election commissioners who process the registration applications on the back end (see below).

This is what an election worker would see after an applicant submits the survey:

broken image

As you can see, the information is neatly compiled for easy processing on the back end.

Other Changes

I made several other changes to the application form worth noting:

  • I removed certain optional sections on the form; applicants no longer need to fill these out in the new survey, further simplifying the registration process. These sections are: Race (marked as optional on the old form); Email (marked as optional on the old form); and Last Address of Voter Registration (It is unlikely Tennessee needs to collect this information. There are electronic databases states can use to help keep their voter rolls up to date).2
  • I added important notices to the survey. For example, it is Tennessee law that a first-time voter must vote in-person. First-time voters cannot request absentee ballots. There is NO information about this law on the current application (an application meant specifically for first-time Tennessee voters!). This can be a complete barrier to accessing the polls.3 The new application includes notices about the law and directs the voter to register with the address at which they expect to reside on election day so they can be sure their polling place is within a reasonable distance.
  • I added multiple languages to choose from in case English is not the applicant’s first language.
  • I added a link convicted felons can click on to access resources that can help them with questions they may have about their voting rights.
  • I added a survey question about working on election day. On the old form, this question was practically hidden in the top corner, away from the other parts of the form that an applicant fills out.


1 And I tried to think back to when I was that person myself. I completed the Tennessee voter registration application when I moved to Nashville shortly before beginning law school.

2 31 states and Washington, D.C. are members of The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a service that helps states identify duplicate voter registrations. Once identified, states can purge their rolls of outdated registrations, keeping their rolls up to date. Tennessee is not currently a member, but could be! 

3 I know somebody who drove SIX HOURS from college (where she was living) to her home county (where she was registered to vote) to vote because she did not know about this restriction when she registered.