Tennessee's county election commissioners can only vote in their party's primary

Tennessee's county election commissioners can only vote in their party's primary

July 28th, 2014 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Mary Alice Jordan fills out her ballot during the last day of early voting at the Hamilton County Election Commission on Thursday.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - Tennessee officials are warning the state's 475 Democratic and Republican county election commissioners that they will get bounced off the local panels if they cross over and vote in the opposite party's primary during the Aug. 7 election.

State Election Coordinator Mark Goins' office last week sent the new rule, adopted July 14 by the Republican-controlled State Election Commission, to the five-member panels in each of Tennessee's 95 counties.

The new policy says: "While serving on the county election commission a county election commission member should not vote in a primary of the opposite party which they represent. If a county election commissioner plans on doing so they should resign prior to voting or they will be subject to removal by the State Election Commission."

State officials said in that same email that the new policy was passed as a result of a complaint against an unidentified county election commissioner in Tennessee who voted in the opposite party's primary.

But the state's new directive is already coming under fire from Chattanooga attorney Jerry Summers, a Democratic member on the Hamilton County Election Commission.

Summers said Saturday in an interview that he doesn't believe the state's order passes muster under federal guarantees of free speech and assembly under the U.S. Constitution.

"I think there's a serious First Amendment issue involved here," Summers said Saturday.

In fact, added Summers, who prior to his appointment served as the local election commission's counsel, he thinks the new rule may also violate the Tennessee Constitution.

In Summers' view, both federal and state Constitutions "would take precedence if this position of infringing upon the rights of people to vote" and thus would "supersede the policy of the State Election Commission."

Summers said he's already voted in the Democratic Party primary and he doesn't have much interest voting in a GOP primary generally. The State Election Commission appoints county election commissioners upon recommendation by local state legislators who nominate members of their own party. Summers said if someone crossed over, they could simply not be renominated next time by the local legislators.

While the state email doesn't identify who crossed over, The Columbia Daily Herald reported in May that the Republican-run Maury County Election Commission voted 3-2 to censure Commissioner Lynn C. Nelson of Columbia, the vice president of the Maury County Democratic Party, after he voted in the GOP primary.

It was the first time Republicans had held a local party primary, the newspaper reported, and there was some confusion. The newspaper also reported the local panel was considering complaining to state officials.

According to the State Election Coordinator office's missive, the State Election Commission "considered removal of the commissioner but ended up censuring the county election commissioner. At their meeting the State Election Commission requested our office to notify all county election commissioners of the statute which requires election commission members to represent our two statewide political parties."

The email cites a section in state law that says the "state election commission shall appoint the persons who are required to be members of that party on county election commissions."

It goes on to note that the two legal requirements for voting in a primary are: 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 he or she intends to "affiliate" with that party.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.