Tennessee panel recommends lawmakers not make cities hold elections at same time as county, state, federal contests

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis Foster Sen. Todd Gardenhire, right, listens to Sen. Bo Watson Tuesday, January 5, 2016 at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - A state advisory panel is recommending that Tennessee cities be allowed to retain their current power to set dates for municipal elections as they see fit and not have them mandated by the General Assembly.

The Tennessee Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations' (TACIR) action last week appears at first blush yet another setback to 2018 efforts by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, to move municipal elections to even-year August or November ballots, coinciding with county, state and federal elections.

Then again, Sexton was elected just last month as House speaker, the most powerful post in the 99-member lower chamber.

Gardenhire and Sexton argue the change would lead to more voter participation and lower election costs for cities. Opponents argue Tennessee cities should retain their ability to set election dates and point out that municipal offices are nonpartisan and issues revolve over local issues. Placing them on the same ballot as partisan races for county, state and federal offices could make it harder for candidates to be heard amid the clamor of contests for governor, Congress and president, critics say.


Municipal electionsWith renewed debate over whether Tennessee lawmakers should require all cities to hold their elections on even-year countywide ballots for county, state and federal offices, here is the current state of play in the Volunteer State:— 280 or 81% of Tennessee’s 345 cities have set their municipal elections to coincide with either the regular August or November election in even years.— Four cities hold their elections at the same time as the presidential primary or county primary elections.— The remaining 61, a list that includes Chattanooga, Knoxville, Metro Nashville and Memphis, hold their elections separate from any countywide election.— Costs of municipal stand-alone elections widely vary, ranging from about $1,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the city’s size. Cities bear the entire expense. The cost is shared on countywide ballots.— While voter turnout in countywide elections varies depending on the election, it is usually higher than in stand-alone municipal elections.— Proponents of the requirement to move municipal election contests to even-year August or November ballots say it will boost voting and cities’ costs per ballot cast. Critics say that adding city contests to county, state and federal races can lead to municipal races and issues getting lost.Sources: Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations; Times Free Press interviews

Last year's measure stalled amid such concerns and opposition. Efforts to limit the bill just to Hamilton, Knox and Shelby counties as well as Metro Nashville - thus impacting Chattanooga, Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis, which schedule their nonpartisan elections in odd-numbered years, failed to sway lawmakers as well.

The bill was later shipped off by lawmakers to TACIR for study. The organization often serves as the General Assembly's think tank, for study with a staff of professional researchers and a membership comprised of state and local elected officials.

In its recommendation to leave the election-date status quo largely intact, the report notes that in "most situations, voter turnout would improve and costs would decrease when elections are consolidated.

"However," adds the TACIR recommendation, which passed overwhelmingly, "because local officials understand the needs of their communities and when elections work best for them, the Tennessee legislature should continue to authorize, rather than require, municipalities with private act or general law charters to change their election date by ordinance to either the August or November general elections in even-numbered years."

TACIR did recommend lawmakers add a third option for cities to move municipal elections to March presidential primaries every four years if they like.

Gardenhire, who represents much of Chattanooga, said Saturday that moving city elections to August or November ballots where there are political party primaries or general elections will result in "more participation.

"When you have more people on the ballot, more people vote," Gardenhire added. "If the goal's greater participation, move it to where we have the maximum turnout."

Sexton said in a statement to the Times Free Press that "I appreciate TACIR's thoughtful review " of the legislation. "Election timing is an important factor in determining voter turnout, which is critical in a representative republic."

The speaker also said he agreed with TACIR's findings that allowing municipal and countywide election dates to be aligned "will encourage greater participation while also decreasing the overall cost burden on our taxpayers."

On the question of whether the speaker will renew the effort next session, a Sexton spokesman later said Sexton is "taking a wait-and-see approach as to whether he'll re-introduce or leave the topic alone."

TACIR says the trend in Tennessee is already towards consolidating municipal elections with the regular August or November countywide elections.

The vast majority of cities already hold their elections then, according to TACIR, with 280 of Tennessee's 345 cities - 81% - having set their municipal elections to coincide with either the regular August or November election. Four other cities hold their elections at the same time as the presidential primary or county primary elections.

The remaining 61, including Chattanooga, Knoxville, Metro Nashville and Memphis, hold their elections separate from any countywide election.

Noting that he and Sexton "work well together," Gardenhire said "I'll be talking with him to see if he wants me to push the bill in the Senate. I need to talk to him about it and see what his pleasure is. Obviously, whatever I do will be in great consideration of what the speaker wants."

TACIR noted in its report that when reaching out to cities, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke was "concerned" that changing the date of the city's stand-alone, odd-numbered year election "might violate the terms of the consent decree" in the 1989 federal court decision that upended Chattanooga's government.

As a result of the case brought by black civil rights leaders, the city had to change its at-large election system for commissioners to the city's current mayor-council form of government, for which candidates run in districts.

"I appreciate his opinon," Gardenhire said of Berke. "But that's his opinion, and I think past history will show that the maximum African-American vote is in even years when there's a presidential election. It shouldn't affect city elections because lines are drawn in a way to equalize that representation."

Berke said in a statement that "cities know what works best for their citizens. What works for Nashville may not work for Spring City, and what works for Spring City may not work for Chattanooga. We hope that the state legislature recognizes the value of independence and self-governance in local matters - including our electoral processes."

Gardenhire, however, argued that "sometimes the local option protects your own turf but not the interest of the voters." He recalled an amendment on his bill moved its effect to 2022. The term-limited Berke leaves office in 2021.

According to TACIR, when cities have stand-alone elections, they reimburse counties for the cost of holding them. When it's at the same time as a countywide election, including primaries, the municipality only pays for expenses beyond those that normally would have been incurred in a countywide election.

TACIR cited national studies showing that when city elections coincide with other elections, the cost per voter decreases. Costs in Tennessee vary widely depending on a city's size, ranging from about $1,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

TACIR members on Thursday readily approved the recommendation to let municipalities retain their current power to set elections.

Audibly voting no was Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, a TACIR member. He later said he thinks Gardenhire "makes a legitimate argument that antecdotally, and I would think data wise, it shows that in those off-year elections there's less participation then it if were to be included in other elections. Because other elections draw out people for other reasons."

Chad Jenkins, the Tennessee Municipal League's deputy director, said Tennessee cities' elections are nonpartisan as opposed to most county government posts as well as state legislature, Congress and presidential contests, which are partisan.

"So you get confused with partisan races that we try to stay out of that really aren't Democratic or Republican, they're local," Jenkins said. "With a presidential or statewide [race], you've got a pretty long ballot. You don't get into ballot 'fatigue' in the lower end races."

City issues in the stand-alone contest "don't get drowned out," he added.

Addressing Gardenhire's bill in 2018, Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, raised concerns about local candidates' ability to get their messages out amid statewide or national contests and higher costs to paid media.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.