Because the mission of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is to help create conditions that help workers thrive, it was disappointing to see Amendment 1, which codified the notion of “right-to-work” in the state’s constitution, easily pass.

It wasn’t even close; unofficial statewide totals show that across the state more than a million people voted ‘yes’ while ‘no’ voters were a little over 490,000. In Shelby County, the unofficial totals were more than 115,000 voting ‘yes’ and 65,000 ‘no’ votes.

But here’s the thing: The estimated population of Tennessee is 7.2 million; in Shelby County, it’s over 920,000. Not all are eligible to vote; some have even been pushed out of the process


During election season, I’m among those on an email chain who gets voting tallies from Linda Phillips, the administrator of elections for the Shelby County Election Commission. In the early days of this year’s early voting, she sent an email with voting information broken down by age group. The numbers shook me.

A chart breaking down early voters by age, number that voted, number of registered voters and percentage voted of those registered.
Source: Shelby County Election Commission, cumulative early voting totals through Oct. 21

There’s something seriously wrong when the percentage of near 100-year-olds voting on any given day is higher than the percentage of 20-year-olds voting. All those votes left on the table. All that power, unused. Apathy paves the way for power to become entrenched. 

I shared the numbers with our worker and labor reporter Brittany Brown, who falls in the first age group.

“The voting stuff just leaves me confounded,” she wrote to me in our conversation via Slack. “What does it mean for a government that a huge chunk of its people does not vote? Why? Are the leaders legitimate? What voices are heard and unheard in policy decisions? Just lots of questions.”

All those questions are important and good. Good, too, is that researchers show that youth turnout is increasing. In fact, in the midterm elections, youth turnout was the second-highest it’s been in three decades. Yet that same research shows that just 27% of those 18-29 cast a midterm ballot. 

Even better is that young people are coming up with solutions to solve the problem. Brittany shared a piece, from Teen Vogue, that shows how youth organizers are engaging their communities by first addressing immediate needs so people can have the bandwidth to think about the long-term promises inherent in a vote. These organizers are focused on issues, not just voter registration.

We’re thinking along the same lines at MLK50, about how we can help working people thrive today and tomorrow. For instance, we’ve developed a one-page guide to understand and navigate eviction court, an idea that grew from the reporting that housing reporter Jacob Steimer has done. We’ll start distributing copies this week. (We welcome your recommendations on places they should go.)

Some have said that this midterm election was a referendum on democracy. But when most of the country doesn’t participate in democracy’s most fundamental act, I’m not sure what we’ve decided.

At MLK50, we’ll continue to ground our stories in the idea that policy affects everyday struggles and that the vote is a tool that people with the will to change things should use. It’s one of the ways we can stop workers from living the policies shaped by people who don’t represent their interests. 

Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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