Liberty and Justice News

Courts Could Decide Disputed Primary Election Results

Lawmakers are working toward an agreement on legislation that would change the way contested primary elections are handled in the state.

Currently, the political party’s state executive committee decides disputed elections, although their decision can be appealed to the court system.

Under HB3019, sponsored by Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, a candidate who wants to challenge a primary election result would file an appeal with the Tennessee Secretary of State, who’d then appoint an administrative law judge to hear the grievance.

The bill was scheduled for a vote before the House Elections Subcommittee this week, but was delayed after two representatives raised objections about the current draft.

Rep. Gary Moore, D-Joelton, wants language inserted that requires the secretary of state to act in a timely manner when a challenge is filed. “What I can see potentially happening here is (after someone files an appeal)…the secretary of state not doing anything with it until six months later,” said Moore.

Another subcommittee member said the bill should also outline a balanced and consistent decision-making framework to aid judges hearing contested primaries. “The judge is going to need some standards with which to measure the challenge,” said Rep. Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville. “Do we want it to be the party’s bylaws, or do we want some other objective standards to be in there?”

DeBerry’s bill is an attempt to address concerns raised after the 2008 Democratic primary for the District 22 state Senate seat, which represents Cheatham, Houston, and Montgomery counties.

Then-Sen. Rosalind Kurita, of Clarksville, faced a primary challenge from Tim Barnes after Kurita, a Democrat, cast the deciding vote to make a Republican, Ron Ramsey, speaker of the Senate.

Just shy of 10,000 votes were cast in the primary; Kurita won by just 19.

Barnes contested the election, and the state Democratic Executive Committee declared Barnes the winner of the election.

Some Democrats said they had evidence a significant number of Republicans voted in their primary to sway the election for Kurita as payoff for supporting Ramsey. Others said angry partisans on the party executive committee were the ones engaging in political payback — that their decision was comeuppance for Kurita straying from the party line.

Kurita appealed to the courts, but she found no relief there.

“I didn’t really agree with that (executive committee) decision,” Tindall said at the subcommittee meeting Tuesday. “I was a little skeptical of the idea that the party could overturn the decision of the voters of that district.”

DeBerry said his bill is aimed at preventing a similar situation from happening in the future.

The bill, DeBerry said, would not go so far as to ask a judge to determine the true party affiliation of voters in a primary, but it would attempt to remove extreme partisanship from determining contested primary elections.

The bill doesn’t differentiate between “who is, and who is not, a Democrat, who is a Republican, an Independent, Green Party, or whatever.” Rather, it seeks to prevent the will of the public from being overturned unless a judge finds a legal reason for the candidate to be disqualified, DeBerry said.

“We can’t just say, ‘We don’t like you, we think you’re not a good enough Democrat or a good enough Republican, therefore we’re going to declare the loser the winner,” he continued. “That’s what we need to get at.”