News Transparency and Elections

Black Setting Her Sights on November

Rutherford County forgot to open up early voting locations on a Saturday in mid-July, but government officials don’t expect the blip will make a difference in the 6th Congressional District primary vote tallies.

Tennessee state election officials plan to review Rutherford County’s failure to open the polls on the first Saturday of early voting, although it appears that the hearing will not change local election results.

The most high-profile race in the district ended in a near three-way dead-heat for the GOP nomination in the 6th Congressional District. The apparent winner, state Sen. Diane Black, edged both her opponents — state Sen. Jim Tracy and Lou Ann Zelenik, a Murfreesboro businesswoman — by less than 600 votes.

Another similarly balled up race among Democrats for the same congressional seat boiled down to about 200 votes. Brett Carter, an Iraq War veteran from Gallatin, led with 9,429 votes, followed by Ben Leming at 9,207 votes and Henry Barry with 8,814, according to unofficial results.

However, none of the candidates have filed complaints with either Rutherford County nor the state’s election office over the missing early-voting day, officials say.

Furthermore, Zelenik told supporters Tuesday she would accept defeat if the votes showing her losing 24,373 to 24,089 remained unchanged by the time the results are certified.

“With county certification nearing completion, and assuming the vote margin remains the same, I congratulate Diane Black on her victory,” she wrote to her supporters.

Rutherford County elections officers failed to open poll places on July 17, the first Saturday of early voting.

The Tennessee Election Commission plans to question officials from Rutherford County — and Hawkins County, which also failed to open the polls that day — at its Sept. 21 meeting before deciding what, if any, reprimand it will issue.

“In our view, a violation of state election law is a big deal and counties are all supposed to be following the same law,” said Secretary of State spokesman Blake Fontenay.

But the commission cannot overturn election results, Fontenay said.

Rutherford County Election Administrator Hooper Penuel argues early voters still had plenty of time to weigh in, and that the three missing hours on the Saturday in question would have made little or no difference in the final tallies.

“We were open more hours and more locations than any other voting site in the (6th Congressional) district,” he said, adding that the county’s six polling places were open for more than 500 hours for early voting.

For her part, Black said she’s confident she is — and will remain — the GOP nominee, and she’s moving on.

“The state is moving forward and the county is moving forward to certify the election, as they are required by law,” Black said Monday. “We don’t anticipate there will be any changes from what was announced on (primary election day).”

Nevertheless, as Black faces off in the Nov. 2 general election against Carter to replace retiring Democrat U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, she and her husband may also still be fighting Zelenik in court.

Aegis Sciences Corp., a drug testing company run by Black’s husband, David Black, sued Zelenik and her campaign last month for airing what it claimed was an untrue commercial depicting Sen. Black handing off a jumbo check for $1 million to her husband accepting it on behalf of the corporation.

Ageis failed to convince the Davidson County judge in the case to order Zelenik to pull her ad. Black, a small business owner and registered nurse, released her own TV ad combating Zelenik’s.

Less than a week after the primary election, Zelenik filed a lawsuit of her own, calling the Aegis lawsuit “frivolous,” and demanding Black and her husband’s company pay Zelenik’s attorney costs and other damages. Further hearings on the case have not yet been scheduled.

Mark Todd Engler contributed to this report.

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