The Hamilton County district attorney will have to decide whether a recent absentee ballot flap in the Hamilton County Commission District 6 race was a misguided attempt at being helpful by a campaign volunteer or an intentional effort to manipulate election results.
Hamilton County election officials recently discovered that Democrat John Allen Brooks, who's running against Republican incumbent Joe Graham for the District 6 seat, sent applications for absentee ballots to several elderly residents.
The applications apparently were already filled out with the voter's name and information, including party preference: Democrat. That means that if the applications for absentee ballots were accepted by the election commission, the absentee voters would receive only a Democratic ballot by mail.
But it never got that far, Administrator of Elections Kerry Steelman said, because the election commission caught and rejected the applications that originated from Brooks' campaign as they trickled into the office. It's illegal for a third party like Brooks to give away applications for absentee ballots.
"Only an election commission official can process an application for an absentee ballot," Steelman said.
It's a Class E felony for a person who is not an employee of an election commission to give an application for an absentee ballot to anyone, according to Tennessee law. And it's a Class A misdemeanor to give an unsolicited request for an application for absentee ballot to any person.
So far, Steelman has received four applications for absentee ballots that originated with the John Brooks campaign. He called Brooks about two weeks ago when he discovered the problem, and Brooks immediately stopped sending out the ballots.
Brooks admitted that his campaign sent the applications, but said the volunteer who mailed the applications was not aware it was illegal and was just trying to help.
"It turns out I had a volunteer who talked to some people on the phone who asked for an absentee ballot," Brooks said. "So she printed off a copy and sent it to them. I didn't know about it until Kerry called."
He said the volunteer estimated she'd sent out about seven or eight applications for absentee ballots.
"It wasn't anything planned, it wasn't like we sent out hundreds and hundreds," he said. "It's not something we were doing as a campaign. It was someone being helpful to the elderly, and it was the wrong thing to do. That's it."
He said he doesn't expect the mistake to affect the results of the election. Steelman said he'd continue to reject any applications for absentee ballots that were sent out by the Brooks campaign, and that any further investigation would come from the district attorney's office.
"If [voters] receive them, they can call us," Steelman said. "And we can set them up with an absentee ballot."
Neal Pinkston with the Hamilton County district attorney's office said the complaint was being reviewed but he could not comment further.
Incumbent Joe Graham said he is too busy campaigning to worry about Brooks' campaign.
"I'm running my campaign and he is running his campaign," Graham said. "I'm not going to worry about someone else's campaign, I'm going to worry about doing the right thing for the people in my district."
Staff writer Todd South contributed to this story.
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