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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.

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Press Releases

NFIB Picks Favorite Incumbents to Support In August Primary

Press Release from the National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee Chapter; July 6, 2012: 

NFIB Endorses Candidates in 5 Senate, 20 House Primaries

NASHVILLE, July 6, 2012 – The National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee’s leading small business association, today said it has endorsed candidates in 25 state legislative primary races. The endorsements were made by NFIB/Tennessee SAFE (Save America’s Free Enterprise) Trust, which is comprised exclusively of NFIB members. State primaries are scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 2, with early voting beginning July 13 and ending July 28. NFIB expects to announce general election endorsements later this summer. The general election will be held Nov. 6.

“NFIB supports candidates who understand how important it is to reduce burdens on small business,” said Jim Brown, state director of NFIB/Tennessee. “These candidates have consistently supported less taxation and have worked diligently to improve our unemployment and workers’ comp systems.”

Endorsements by Senate and House Districts (NFIB members bolded)

Senate District, Name

2, Doug Overbey

14, Jim Tracy

18, Ferrell Haile

28, Joey Hensley

32, Mark Norris

House District Name

2, Tony Shipley

5, David Hawk

6, Dale Ford

8, Art Swann

10, Don Miller

11, Jeremy Faison

12, Richard Montgomery

20, Bob Ramsey

22, Eric Watson

24, Kevin Brooks

27, Richard Floyd

31, Jim Cobb

45, Debra Maggart

48, Joe Carr

61, Charles Sargent

66, Joshua Evans

71, Vance Dennis

90, John DeBerry

96, Steve McManus

99, Ron Lollar

NFIB’s endorsement is critical to these campaigns. Small business owners and their employees vote in high numbers and are known for actively recruiting friends, family members and acquaintances to go to the polls. NFIB has pledged it will activate its grassroots network on behalf of these campaigns. NFIB’s political support is based on the candidates’ positions and records on small business issues.

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Featured Transparency and Elections

1-2-3, Go! Redistricting Maps Advance

Tweaks to the lines on redrawn Democratic districts in the state House came down to something like a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.

House lawmakers approved the new maps 67-25-3 Thursday. Speaker Beth Harwell said she had politely encouraged Democrats to throw some votes her party’s way for the sake of bipartisanship appearances.

“I said to (Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner), ‘If we are making these concessions for some of your members, I would appreciate votes from your caucus,’” she said.

That left the #1 and #2 Democrats to figure out who would make Harwell feel appreciated.

“I’d like to think it was a little punitive, maybe, because the discussions were pretty hot and heavy,” Turner, of Old Hickory, said. … “I thought it was worth that to save a couple of our members.”

Turner threw down rock to Leader Craig Fitzhugh’s paper in their session to make sure the speaker got at least one leadership vote from their side. Turner was one of six Democrats who voted in favor of the Republican-drawn maps, while Fitzhugh toed the party line.

“Everybody we had that was paired, we tried to do so something about that,” said Turner, who had been one of the most vocal critics of GOP maps. “In areas where it didn’t impact their members, they decided to give us a couple of those back.”

In the final hours before the map was approved by the chamber, Republicans agreed to make these concessions to preserve incumbent advantage:

  • Separate Democrats Sherry Jones and Mike Stewart, who had been drawn into the same south Nashville district.
  • Return Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, to the district he represents now. He had been lumped into the same district as Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah.
  • Adjust the lines in the district represented by Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville.

Democrats pitched a handful of other amendments to the maps on the House floor, mainly attempts to make more Shelby County districts represent a greater percentage of minorities. All those attempts failed.

The maps fell “way short on minority representation,” according to Turner, although he said he wanted to talk to the Tennessee Democratic Party, the General Assembly’s Black Caucus and other “interested parties” before deciding whether to challenge the lawsuit in court.

Harwell said the Democratic votes symbolize that the map has bipartisan support.

“Bottom line is, surely it sends a clear message that a majority of the members in this General Assembly is pleased with it, and I think the people of this state will be well represented by this map,” she said. “No one can doubt that we have drawn these lines fairly, that there’s proper representation from each district.”

In the new map, sitting House members who would have to run against other legislators (unless they relocated) are situated in:

  • District 28 in Hamilton County: Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, and Joanne Favors, D-Chattanooga
  • District 31 in Sequatchie, Bledsoe, Rhea and part of Roane counties: Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, and Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap
  • District 86 in Shelby County: Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, and G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis
  • District 98 in Shelby County: Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, and Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis

The Senate is expected to vote on its maps and OK the House drawings Friday. If approved by both chambers, the maps will go to the governor for his approval.

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Press Releases

Cobb Wants More Time to Review TWRA Commission

Press Release from Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City; May 11, 2011:

Rep. Cobb Sets the Record Straight About the Future of the TWRA Commission

(May 11, 2011, NASHVILLE) – At a meeting of the Government Operations Committee today, Representative Jim Cobb (R—Spring City) announced his plans for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission Reauthorization legislation. Rep. Cobb serves as Chairman of the Committee.

“Right now, I believe it is best to move this legislation until 2012 to give the General Assembly more time to examine the role the Commission plays in the overall function of the TWRA. The fact is, the TWRA Commission has been slow to respond to constituents and answer questions regarding the activities of the agency,” stated Rep. Cobb.

He continued, “This move will have no effect on the agency itself. No one will lose their jobs and I expect the TWRA to continue functioning as normal. I am actually pleased with the good work that is being done by our wildlife officers throughout the State. Unfortunately, the Commission responsible for managing the affairs of the agency has been hard to reach, obstinate in their views, and uncooperative in their actions. That must change.”

Representative Frank Nicely (R—Knoxville), who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, echoed the sentiments by Rep. Cobb and remarked, “The TWRA Commission knows full well we must have their cooperation if we are to move forward proactively discussing the issues facing the resources of Tennessee. I applaud Chairman Cobb for slowing the process down so we have the attention of the Commission. While they will try and paint this as a move against the entire agency, they understand this is about the Commission and their inability to competently carry out their duties.”

Rep. Cobb has authored legislation to extend the TWRA Commission. It may be viewed here.