Opinion: Voter turnout will be key in District 11 Hamilton County Commission, school board races

With many Hamilton County races decided, or all but decided, in the May primary, some voters may feel like they can take a pass on the August general election.

Voters in the new District 11 should be among the exceptions. We hope they will be exceptions, that is, because they have what are likely to be competitive races for both county commission and Board of Education.

We opined in this space last fall that the commission's redistricting made the new district one that leaned Democratic, just as the new District 10 was decidedly Republican. Though final tweaks hadn't been made on the district at the time, and though the newly drawn lines still needed state approval, we felt comfortable in making that prediction.

And though voters may not have been able to tell it by voting in the recent primary, we stand by our statement.

In the recent primary for county commission, Republican Joe Graham was unopposed but picked up 1,986 complimentary votes. Democrats, on the other hand, had a competitive primary won by Montrell Besley but cast only 764 total votes, less than half of the GOP total.

In the school board primary, Republican Virginia Anne Manson and Democrat Jill Black both ran unopposed, but Manson drew 1,896 votes and Black 599, less than a third of the GOP total.

How, then, would we think the district leans Democratic?

It's all in the turnout.

Let's wind the clock back two years to 2020 and the last presidential election. You may remember it.

At the time, the precincts in the new District 11 were split among county districts 4, 6 and 8, and some of the now-combined precincts were divided into more than one precinct. But they still were deciding between (for the most part) President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden.

In that race, the precincts that now make up District 11 (with the knowledge that there has been a tweak or two on district lines since then) gave 6,378 votes to Biden (about 56.5%, not including other candidates) and 4,917 votes to Trump (about 43.5%).

That tells us if all the Biden voters voted for Besley and Black and all the Trump voters voted for Graham and Manson, Besley and Black easily could be elected.

Of course, voters don't vote a straight party line as the recent primary proved, and crossover voting is lawfully permitted in Tennessee.

The votes in the most recent county commission race in 2018 offer a slightly more realistic picture, though even it is skewed because the candidate in one precinct now part of District 11 was unopposed, and the winning candidate in three of the precincts now in District 11 had opposition only from an independent candidate.

But in 2018 general election voting, Democratic county commission candidates in precincts now in District 11 received 1,850 votes, and Republican candidates in precincts now in District 11 picked up 1,800 votes. The independent candidate, running in three of the precincts, got 239 votes.

So, as you see, the potential is there for a close race.

Looking at votes in the last school board elections is more complicated. Until this year, candidates for seats on the body did not run by party. A change in state law last fall allowed the partisan elections, though, and both the local Republican and Democratic parties signed on.

In 2020, three of the precincts now in District 11 were in District 4, where incumbent Tiffanie Robinson was unopposed. In three other precincts, 2018 winner Jenny Hill has now moved on to the Chattanooga City Council, which is nonpartisan. In the seventh precinct now in District 11, Missionary Ridge, Tucker McClendon (who ran for county commission in the 2022 primary as a Republican) defeated incumbent David Testerman by one vote, 209-208.

So without Robinson and Hill declaring a party preference, it's difficult to compare to whom their votes might naturally flow.

However, Robinson has voted with her checkbook this time around, contributing $507 - including in-kind contributions - to Black.

According to public financial disclosure forms, Manson had more than $33,300 on hand at the end of the first-quarter reporting period and Black had more than $16,600.

In the District 11 county commission race, per first-quarter filings, candidates Graham and Besley were almost even in cash on hand - Graham with almost $12,000 and Besley with almost $11,700.

So, we'll reiterate. The seats in this district are up for grabs. A presidential election-like turnout favors Democrats. A light turnout favors Republicans. Something in between could mean a squeaker.

It's all in the turnout.