Hamilton County election results certified, as some express ballot integrity concerns

About 20 people attended a Hamilton County Election Commission meeting Friday to share their concerns about the integrity of the May 3 primary election, although commissioners found the results sound and certified the results.

Hamilton County Election Commissioner Jerry Summers said he doesn't have any reason to believe that any impropriety took place in the election.

"If there was a red flag I'd probably be the one to raise it," Summers said by phone Friday. "I don't have anything to suggest that the election was improper, but if somebody does there are avenues to voice their objections."

According to the certified results, voters in the primary election chose Weston Wamp as the Republican candidate for county mayor, to face Democrat Matt Adams in August. Wamp's sister, Coty Wamp, was selected as the GOP nominee for district attorney, to face Democrat John Allen Brooks in the fall. Nominees were also chosen for county commission, school board and judgeships.

Citizens in attendance at Friday's commission meeting said they were there to express concern about the election in general and not in support of a specific candidate.

Individual concerns expressed to the Times Free Press included the belief that the number of votes cast in the election was higher than the number of eligible voters, that several school board primary winners won by the same percentage of votes and that students from majority-Black schools were "shipped in" to vote in the election.

"We're not happy with the way things have been going the last couple of decades in Tennessee and in Hamilton County, and we do not believe we do have election integrity," Chattanooga resident Abbie Killian said, as to why she attended the meeting. "We've been coming to the meetings to let them know we're watching and we're trying to make changes and we want changes."

Hamilton County has 232,752 eligible voters, and 48,848 votes were cast in the county primary, according to the election commission website.

"I'm just very concerned after this primary on just election integrity," Charles Wysong, of East Brainerd, said to commissioners after they voted to certify the election results. "I think most people after 2020 have become increasingly alarmed at what's going on in our country and certainly in our counties here."

In Tennessee, voters are not able to register to vote in a particular political party, and therefore there is no mechanism to have registered party members vote in that party's primary. People can choose either a Republican or Democratic ballot when they vote in primary elections, regardless of what party they identify with.

Wysong expressed concern about the votes in the May 3 primary elections, given that arrangement.

"I don't know how many crossed over to vote, but we really didn't have a Republican primary," Wysong said. 'We had something else."

Wysong told the Times Free Press he attended the meeting as an individual concerned about election integrity and not as part of a group.

"Typically what you would have is Republicans vote in the Republican primary and Democrats vote in the Democrat primary, and that isn't what happened," he said by phone on Friday. "There were a number of Democrats encouraged to ask for a Republican ballot and vote for [Republican nominee for county mayor] Weston Wamp."

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Republican from Chattanooga and a Wamp supporter, said he decided to attend the meeting because he happened to be at the commission office picking up a list of county voters.

He said there is no proof of "crossover" votes made by Democrats in the Republican primary in Hamilton County.

"That is a sour grapes issue, because if you look at the numbers and look at the precincts, it doesn't hold up," Gardenhire said by phone later Friday. "As a matter of fact, the numbers prove just the opposite."

Gardenhire said in the 1950s and '60s Tennessee basically had a closed primary system, and it was difficult then for even one or two Republicans to get elected in Hamilton County. In 1976 a lot of people who had voted Democrat in the past pulled Republican ballots in the primary to vote for Ronald Reagan, and those people then continued to vote Republican, Gardenhire said.

"They started becoming regular, active Republicans, and our party grew to where we're now the majority party," he said. "So those people that want to close the primary system will take us right back to where we were 40 and 50 years ago."

Interviewed Friday night after a victory party at the Songbirds venue, Wamp said he won in precincts across the county, including many traditional GOP strongholds.

"We won in Hixson and Soddy Daisy and from Mowbray Mountain to Sale Creek, and those are all ruby red, Trump-supporting precincts, so I think [those questioning the results] are probably just voicing sour grapes," Wamp said.

Wamp said voters should be confident in the results.

"We run secure elections in America, and we run secure elections in Hamilton County, Tennessee," he said.

Christian Bennett, auditor-in-charge of the Hamilton County Election Commission's account with Mauldin & Jenkins certified public accounting firm, said to the commission at Friday's meeting that he and his staff checked each machine before Election Day to ensure that the test ballots were producing accurate results. The machines were then set to zero and sealed, he said.

The machines were observed coming back into the office on election night to ensure the seals on the machines were the same seals, Bennett said, adding that they turned on the machines and there were no broken seals.

The day after the election, he said they selected a sample of various precincts and compared the counts of the actual votes per the machines to the number of ballot stubs, ballot applications and signatures in the poll books.

"The auditor-in-charge's unmodified opinion was that based on their pre- and post-election auditing results, the election commission should certify the results as presented in the meeting," Hamilton County Election Commission Assistant Administrator of Elections Nate Foster said in an email.

"Citizens' concerns about party crossover voting in the election do not attest to our voting machines' accuracy or whether the votes were accurately counted," Foster said. "Citizens should talk with their local party authorities and the state legislature if they wish to change the rules for voter participation in a primary election. The election commission follows the law, and if they want to see a change, the law needs to be changed. Our office is not the proper venue to remedy that kind of concern."

Staff writer Dave Flessner contributed to this report.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.