Tennessee Democrats caught up in voter data snafu

Gubernatorial candidate blames state party; chairman points to national committee

John Partipilo / Tennessee Lookout / Jason Martin is shown at his 2021 campaign announcement. Martin narrowly defeated Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley to win the Democratic nomination for governor last week and will face Republican incumbent Bill Lee in the November general election.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Martin and the Tennessee Democratic Party are at odds over bad information his campaign received from the party and sent to voters in a mass text message just days before the Aug. 4 election.

Martin, who narrowly defeated Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley to win the nomination, was caught off guard when Secretary of State Tre Hargett notified his campaign that it sent text messages to voters containing incorrect precinct and polling places.

Martin campaign spokeswoman Emily Cupples said the texts went out to 41,000 Democratic voters based on information the campaign received from the state party, which wasn't updated to reflect statewide redistricting this year.

Martin's campaign spent about $2,500 sending out texts again, this time telling voters to check their polling places at the secretary of state's website.

"It's very frustrating when campaigns are working very hard to build excitement and grow our Democratic base in the state of Tennessee, and the party's function is to provide campaigns with the necessary tools and resources to do that, and in this instance, they couldn't be trusted to do that," Martin said through Cupples.

(READ MORE: Democratic candidates Martin, Smiley say Gov. Lee has failed to lead Tennessee)

Martin is so irritated with the party he doesn't plan to participate in a coordinated campaign planned by Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Hendrell Remus as he squares off against Republican Gov. Bill Lee in the November general election.

The campaign also is considering whether to ask the party's executive committee to hold a vote of no confidence in Remus.

Remus defended himself this week, saying the party provided the secretary of state's list to the Democratic National Committee, which uploaded precincts for the state's vote builder program but failed to correctly map some of the precincts that involved voting convenience centers. Those are polling locations in a handful of counties where voters can cast ballots no matter their precinct.

He scoffed at the notion a no-confidence vote would be held by the executive committee.

(READ MORE: Nashville doctor announces Democratic gubernatorial bid)

"I'm not worried about being punished. I'm more than confident in my leadership abilities and my relationship with this executive committee. We know what this issue stemmed from," Remus said.

The party chairman said he spoke with Hargett and Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins to discuss concerns brought by a voter who received one of the faulty text messages.

He sent the secretary of state's latest voter list to the Democratic National Committee, which identified that 90% of the precincts were accurate and updated the rest, resolving the matter within 24 hours.

"What alarmed the Secretary of State's Office was that when the voter got the text she thought it was misinformation and someone was trying to steer her to the wrong polling location," Remus said. "That's why I personally looked up her personal voting location myself."

The party received only three phone calls about the bad texts, he said.

The Secretary of State's Office confirmed it was contacted by a voter who said the polling place she received from the campaign was different from the one shown on the state's site. The office called Martin's campaign to alert it to the problem.

"Based on our conversation with the campaign, it appears the database they were using to send texts still had polling place information from 2020 and had not been updated after redistricting," secretary of state spokeswoman Julia Bruck said.

Because the Martin campaign said it received the database from the party, the Secretary of State's Office contacted the Democratic Party and requested it update with 2022 polling locations. The party requested a current list of polling locations so the Democratic National Committee could update the data from the 2020 election, Bruck said.

The Martin campaign isn't certain whether people went to the wrong polling locations, but it spent resources and money dealing with the bogus texts, according to Cupples.

Despite Remus' contention that the faulty information stemmed from voting convenience centers, at least two people said they encountered incorrect precinct and polling information in Davidson and Knox counties, which don't use the convenience centers.

In addition, state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat who moved into newly-drawn House District 90 to run for office, said her campaign started checking the database from the state party after hearing about what happened with the Martin campaign and found some of the precincts and voters didn't match what was provided by the Knox County Election Commission.

It didn't affect her get-out-the-vote efforts in the primary because she was unopposed, but she will face a Republican opponent in November.

"It's going to be critical that it gets fixed, and it's right before the November election," Johnson said.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.