NASHVILLE — A debate over voters' ability to participate in the party primary of their choice is in full swing in Dayton, Tenn., after the city mayor's wife says she was told Wednesday her vote "will be rejected" as she sought to vote in the Aug. 2 GOP primary.
"I'm still in shock," Maxine Vincent, wife of Dayton Mayor Bob Vincent said.
There were unconfirmed reports that as many as five other voters had their effort to cast ballots in the GOP primary challenged by Republican election officials.
Vincent, who acknowledged usually voting for Democrats, and her husband are longtime friends and now supporters of Republican Ron Travis, of Dayton. He is running against state Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, in the House District 31 GOP primary, which is among the contests on the primary ballot. Early voting started last Friday.
Rhea County Administrator of Elections Theresa Snyder, who Vincent said challenged her voting in the GOP primary, said in an interview that "the way the state law reads you can be challenged in a political primary for several reasons."
Snyder said a primary "is for the purpose members of that party to select a nominee to appear on the November ballot. And I think that kind of speaks for itself."
Tennessee law says a registered voter is entitled to vote in a primary election if the voter is a "bona fide member of and affiliated with the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote; or at the time the voter seeks to vote, the voter declares allegiance to the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote and states the voter intends to affiliate with that party."
Snyder confirmed Vincent did take the oath as she was asked a series of questions about her allegiance to the Republican Party. But she added that "the three judges verified her voting history and made their decision."
"Obviously, she has a strong history voting for one party, not the party she asked to vote in," Snyder said.
Since it was a Republican primary, the panel was comprised of Republicans. Vincent said Snyder was one of the judges. Asked about that, Snyder would only say it was "three judges." When pressed about her participation, she told a reporter to call the state election coordinator's office and then hung up.
Vincent said the challenge was lodged by Snyder herself shortly after she attempted to pick up a GOP primary ballot. She said Snyder first went to the front office and could be seen speaking on the telephone to someone. She said she could not tell who was on the other end of the conversation.
After she swore the oath, Vincent said, Snyder and the other two Republican judges voted no. She said she asked Snyder whether that meant she couldn't vote and the election administrator said, "you can vote on a ballot, but it will be rejected."
Vincent said she did, but noted, "I wish I had just walked out and not voted ... I guess I was just shocked."
Travis said he was dismayed over what happened.
"There are rules and processes that we have to follow," he said. "But we've got a unique situation here" because only he and Cobb are running the GOP primary and there is no Democrat running in the House race this fall.
"This is the primary and this is the general," he said. "There are only two candidates running. But I do believe we need to follow the rules and the processes and the law. We're not to bend [them] to the benefit of any candidate."
He said he thinks Vincent was treated unfairly "if she raised her hand and took the oath of the Republican Party. For goodness sake, Ronald Reagan was once a Democrat."
Travis questioned whether the Republican Party challenged Vincent.
"I don't think so," he said, noting Cobb had publicly stated "he wasn't going to challenge anybody. I don't know who challenged the voters." He said he has been told as many as five people were blocked from voting in the GOP primary.
Travis said he too had pledged not to challenge primary voters.
Efforts to reach Cobb Wednesday evening were unsuccessful.
Tennessee has had a rich political history of Republicans crossing over into Democratic primaries to choose the more conservative candidate when Democrats controlled the state.
But with Republicans now in control of the General Assembly, there has been increasing talk among Republicans about requiring voters to register as Republicans or Democrats.
In an email response to questions posed by the Times Free Press, State Election Coordinator Mark Goins, a Republican, said "we have received complaints that people have been challenged on party membership. We have also had complaints that Democrats are planning to vote in the Republican primary. We started receiving calls on this issue before early voting started."
He said he anticipates taking no action to block additional challenges, saying "state law allows challenges based on party membership."
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...