They Play, You Pay

Tennessee taxpayers will fork over an estimated $4.5 million this week administering elections for the two major parties.

But as a matter of state law, the decision as to who can and cannot participate in the partisan festivities is ultimately left to party officials and not the government. For that matter, there’s no guarantee the majority will get to decide the winners and losers.

That reality of the fundamentally rigged nature of Tennessee’s primary system was on display recently in Rhea County, where election judges turned away at least 10 voters this month for trying to vote in a primary election in which they were deemed by local GOP bigwigs as not “bona fide” members of the Party of Lincoln. All were asked to swear their allegiance to the Republican Party, and nine were given no guarantees their vote would count.

Members Only

Tennessee GOP chairman Chris Devaney indicated the party’s primary concern in the primary is promoting long-term partisan fidelity.

“We encourage people who have good intentions, Democrats, independents, to come over and vote in our primary if they intend to stay,” said Devaney when asked about the voter challenges in Dayton, a town of 7,000 people.

“But I don’t want people voting in our primary if they just want to manipulate the election,” he said.

Tennessee’s primary election system is technically open, allowing anyone to cast a vote in any primary. But the fine print of the law gives political parties the power to challenge and discount an individual’s vote if they are not “a bona fide member of and affiliated with the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote.“

Voters can get around that law only if they have “declared allegiance to the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote and (stated) that the voter intends to affiliate with that party.” If party election officials are convinced, voters can cast a ballot. Otherwise, those voters cast a rejected ballot that party leaders decide later whether to count.

Leading House Democrat Craig Fitzhugh says Democrats didn’t have a candidate to vote for in the Rhea County race. But no voter should stand accused of so-called “crossover voting” without evidence, he said.

“I just think that’s carrying that party tag a little too far,” he said, adding he was OK with Dayton Mayor Bob Vincent’s wife Maxine trying to switch from Democrat to Republican to presumably vote against incumbent Rep. Jim Cobb, of Spring City, who is running against Dayton businessman Ron Travis.

“I don’t think much of that at all. I think people cherish their vote a little more than that just to use it in that manner,” he said.

The Kurita Cure

That’s not what Democrats were saying a few years ago when the party’s State Primary Board chose to oust the people’s choice, an incumbent, in a state Senate race in favor of a hand-picked successor more to the party establishment’s liking.

If party officials believe a race was decided by voters who weren’t “bona fide” party faithful, the state party itself can decide to go with another candidate.

That’s what happened in 2008. Democrat Sen. Rosalind Kurita, who had earlier cast the key vote to name Republican Sen. Ron Ramsey as the Senate speaker, so infuriated the party brass that they gave her the boot in favor of the man she actually bested by a razor thin margin.

The party’s primary board reasoned that Kurita’s 19-vote victory was “incurably uncertain” because they believed voters of the wrong partisan hue jumped party lines in an attempt to sway the election in her favor. So the party’s executive committee sent her challenger, Tim Barnes, to the general election in her place, and he won despite Kurita’s attempt to run as a write-in candidate.

Kurita took her fight to U.S. District Court in Middle Tennessee where Judge Robert L. Echols dismissed the case in part on the grounds that primaries are technically private-party affairs.

“Simply stated, the manner in which primary election contests are handled is left to the parties,” Echols wrote in his ruling.

The power to select a nominee for a political party has never been reserved traditionally and exclusively to the State of Tennessee. In fact, just the opposite is true, as the Tennessee General Assembly expressly disclaimed any role of state government in resolving party nomination contests and instead reserved power exclusively to the political party to choose the nominee whose name will appear on the general election ballot.”

Kurita lost her latest appeal to that ruling last month in the 6th District U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, agreeing with the lower court’s opinion that the parties themselves are the final arbiters of who gets to go on to the general election under the party banner.

Taxpayers Footing the Bill

Secretary of State spokesman Blake Fontenay said the tab for putting on the roughly four-and-a-half-million-dollar show for Republican and Democrat primary voters includes the cost to provide early voting, count ballots, staff election precincts and other duties — all paid for through county tax dollars.

One activist said that legislators should change the laws so voters can be confident they can vote for their favorite candidates in the primary election — regardless what party they belong to.

“This is going to sound funny, but there’s too much politics in our elections,” said Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a left-leaning civil rights group. “It’s the election by the people. They should have access to whatever ballot they want to choose during that process. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.”

But she declined to comment on what she thought about Kurita being bumped off the ballot for alleged cross over voting.

“People want us to believe we live in this hyper-partisan society. But I think there’s a lot of people out there who vote for the person, not the party,” she said.

  • cannoneer2

    The Kurita debacle should have shown every Tennessee citizen with one eye and half sense that primaries in Tennessee are a joke. We have plenty of politicians who howl about how much waste there is to cut in Tennessee government. Let’s see who has the C.O. Jones to suggest cutting every red cent of taxpayer money from funding primaries.

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  • Kent Flanagan

    If extreme partisanship continues to trend upward, then the individual political parties should pay for their own primaries.

    But I feel that closed political parties is antithetical to (lower case) democracy, which demands that government should be open to all citizens and that includes true open primary elections.

    Voting is a right, not a privilege.

  • Eric Holcombe

    But the primary elections are not a right. In fact, without political parties (private clubs), they aren’t even necessary. This is why you can be denied your “right” to vote in them. “Just give us your money and keep your mouth shut”.

    If the private political clubs want the public to pay for their club elections, then the public absolutely should be able to vote in them. If the private political clubs want to control their membership and votes then do it on your own dime (like pretty much every other organization except for the Republican and Democratic parties).

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  • Amy Liorate

    Another solution might be to remove party labels from ballot in all general elections. Then people might be encouraged to at least learn the candidates names and not just vote by party and then who ever is listed first – a la Mark Clayton winning the Democrat nomination.

    Imagine a voter who goes into the booth and then if faced with the fact that they don’t know anything about any of the candidates! Dude, where’s my party?

    Flanagan is right though, if the primaries are really up to the party leaders then it’s all a sham and the parties should foot the bill, not all taxpayers.