Effort to get state Republican Party to void Hamilton County's mayoral primary results faces hurdles

In her formal challenge to fellow Republican Weston Wamp's victory in Hamilton County's May 3 GOP mayoral primary, Sabrena Smedley is relying on a rarely-invoked provision of Tennessee law.

The County Commission chairwoman is asking the 66-member Tennessee Republican Party's State Executive Committee to step in as the GOP's state primary board and void the results.

In that role, executive committee members will hear and vote whether to accept or reject Smedley's allegations that Wamp's victory in the three-person mayoral primary was the result of Democrats crossing over into the Republican primary to vote for him and thus is tainted. Lending his name to the effort was Republican businessman Matt Hullander, who came in third in the GOP primary.

"It's a high standard," Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden said in a Thursday phone interview with the Times Free Press.

Among other requirements, Tennessee Code Annotated 2-7-115 states that a registered voter is entitled to vote in a primary election if "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 that the voter intends to affiliate with that party."

The allegiance/affiliation provision has historically been a major hang-up.

(READ MORE: Weston Wamp found support in Hamilton County's western half to win Republican mayoral nomination)

Golden has served on the GOP's executive committee since 2006, began work with the party as a staffer in 1998 and has been involved most of the time in politics ever since, working for then-Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn and later as deputy chief of staff for then-Congressman Stephen Fincher.

"I know in my years with the Republican Party that we've never overturned an election," Golden said, noting the difficulties of getting executive committee members to wade in.

But that didn't stop angry Tennessee Democratic Party State Executive Committee members in 2008. They voided the results of then-state Sen. Rosalind Kurita, a Clarksville Democrat.

That was in retaliation for Kurita having crossed party lines two years earlier to help elect Republican Ron Ramsey as the first GOP Senate speaker in modern history. She had won her own election with a slender 18-vote margin over challenger Tim Barnes. Kurita sued after the party declared Barnes the victor. A federal judge later ruled in the party's favor.

At least four Republican candidates have tried to persuade the state GOP to overturn primary voters' decisions in the past decade or so, Golden recalled. None of them succeeded. Golden said he is not prejudging Smedley's challenge.

Chris Devaney, of Lookout Mountain, who served as GOP chairman from 2009-15 and had previously worked for political figures including then-U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tennessee, couldn't recall any instance where Republicans had voided an election, although several have tried.

(READ MORE: Rivals challenge Weston Wamp's mayoral win in Hamilton County GOP primary)

"I know of no instance that this has been overturned" by the GOP's State Executive Committee, Devaney said in a phone interview Thursday, adding the only successful case he knows of was with Democrats' actions on Kurita.

"Usually it's a futile exercise. You know, they go through it, and it comes out to the way it is," Devaney said. "It's hard to prove. I don't know what her allegations are, although I've heard about it on it on the street."

In recent years, three Republicans have tried to overcome that barrier in legislative or federal contests and failed. The latest was in 2020 when Republican Gina Oster, of Knoxville, challenged Eddie Mannis, a Republican and Knoxville businessman who had won their state House District 18 primary by 99 votes. GOP executive committee members confirmed Mannis as the nominee in a conference call on a 43-18 vote.

Smedley's complaint states that "there was no mechanism in place to vet bona fide Republican voters at the polls, by either the Hamilton County Election Commission or the local Republican Party."

In Tennessee, voters don't register by party, but state law stipulates that only "bona fide" members of a particular party are allowed to vote in that party's primary. However, neither state law nor the parties themselves define a "bona fide" member for the purposes of voting, according to Chris Acuff, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

The Tennessee Republican Party's bylaws do define bona fide members for the purposes of candidacy, but this has not been applied to regular voters, Acuff said.

The complaint suggests voting records should be used to confirm voters are bona fide Republicans before they are allowed to vote. The complaint states that "the voting history record is information which only the Hamilton County Election Commission possesses" and "according to Hamilton County election officials, the record was not available at the poll sites digitally when it could have been. Moreover, the local Republican Party failed to even request that this information be made available digitally at the poll sites."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County DA Pinkston still working cases as he prepares to relinquish control by Sept. 1)

Smedley's complaint alleges that Hamilton County election officials "confirmed that although poll workers received training on what to do if there was a challenge to a voter, they received no training on how to challenge and were not given access, as noted, to the voting history records of voters.

"If a poll watcher or anyone else just happened to guess, out of the thousands of voters that poured into the polls, that a voter was not a bona fide Republican, the poll worker or anyone else had to approach the poll official, have them call the Hamilton County Election Commission on the 'emergency line' to request a voting history."

State law does not prohibit someone from voting in a particular primary based on their voting history.

A voter would only be asked to "declare allegiance" to a particular party if the voter's affiliation is challenged, and not as a requirement of requesting a particular party's ballot, Acuff said, adding that to his knowledge, this is not or has not been used as a precursor to voting in Tennessee.

"In practice, challenging an average voters' party allegiance is unenforceable," Acuff said. "State law allows a voter to declare their intent to affiliate with a party at the time they request a ballot, and it is incumbent on a citizen or member of a particular party to challenge a voter's eligibility, not election administrators. Typically, election administrators take a voters' request for a ballot as their intent to affiliate with a particular party. Further, since there is no state law that defines 'bona fide' party membership, an election official denying someone the right to vote based upon a subjective definition of party membership could be seen as a form of voter disenfranchisement."

Acuff said the rare instances where party affiliation challenges have occurred are when an elected official or local leader of an opposing political party has attempted to vote in another party's primary.

"Many people choose to change parties for one reason or another over time, and there are no guidelines in terms of eligibility based on one's voting history," Acuff said.

Smedley's complaint states that "crossover votes by bona fide Democrats should be cast out because the voters could not also be bona fide Republicans at the same time. The problem is, the Hamilton County Election Commission claims it cannot or will not provide the information necessary to see which candidate received the crossover votes."

Acuff said there is a provision and process that allows for voters' party affiliation to be challenged, but this must occur at the time a voter arrives to cast a ballot, not after the fact, given America's tradition of secret ballots.

"Since we only know that someone voted in a particular primary, and not who they voted for, there wouldn't be a way to exclude a certain number of votes for a candidate," he said.

Alleged interference

Smedley's complaint references a number of alleged efforts to encourage crossover voter participation in the May 3 election.

For instance, Red Bank Vice Mayor Stefanie Dalton was cited in Smedley's complaint as providing "interference" in the election for an April 26 Facebook post encouraging people to vote in the primary.

The post noted districts in which candidates were running unopposed and where, if voters did not pull a particular ballot, their votes may not matter.

Dalton told the Chattanooga Times Free Press by phone the complaint assumes her political position, though in two decades of voting she has voted for Republicans, Democrats and independents. She is not registered with a party, she said, and endorsed Amanda Dunn, Republican candidate for Criminal Court Judge Division 3, and Democratic mayoral candidate Matt Adams.

Dalton said she made the post to help educate voters who are often confused by the primary process. The allegation that her post was "interference" in the local election caught Dalton off guard, she said.

"To say that educating voters is interfering with the election process, it says to me that they don't want voters to be educated and that they're upset that they lost," Dalton said.

Dalton noted Smedley worked as a county commissioner and ran as a mayoral candidate on fiscal responsibility. Now, taxpayer money could be going toward resolving this issue, she said.

Although not referenced in the complaint, some of Smedley's supporters appeared to promote the kind of crossover voting criticized in the complaint.

Risa Miller, a local resident who supported Smedley's campaign, posted on her Facebook page April 3, telling local Democrats to "seriously consider" pulling a Republican ballot in the May 3 primary to elect Smedley.

"If your Democratic candidate doesn't 'need' your vote, then you could definitely vote for the next HC mayor to be a woman!" Miller posted April 3.

Miller included a link in her post to election information from Unifi-Ed, a local education advocacy organization.

Miller did not respond to a Times Free Press request for comment Thursday afternoon by phone.

Rachel Campbell, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, told the Times Free Press on May 5 that her organization would not support crossover voting because the party is trying to elect its own candidates.

"We would never ever, ever, ever encourage our members to pull a Republican ballot," Campbell said.

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