Smedley complaint seeks election gatekeeping for primaries

NASHVILLE - In her contest to Weston Wamp's victory in Hamilton County's May 3 Republican mayoral primary election, second-place finisher Sabrena Smedley wants the Tennessee Republican Party's State Executive Committee to set aside the results, citing what she says is crossover voting by Democrats as well as failures by the county election commission and the local party to adequately police the election.

Her contention is that Democrats crossed over and voted for Wamp.

Among other things, Smedley says there was no mechanism in place to vet "bona fide" or good faith Republican voters either by the Hamilton County Election Commission or the county's Republican Party.

She said no database of Republican voter data was sought by the local party nor supplied by the state party so voter histories could be vetted in the event of a voter's legitimacy as a party member being challenged.

Another criticism made by Smedley was county precincts did not post a copy of Tennessee Code Annotated 2-7-15(b).

It states: "A registered voter is entitled to vote in a primary election for offices for which the voter is qualified to vote at the polling place where the voter is registered if: (1) The voter is a bona fide member of and affiliated with the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote; or (2) 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."

And Smedley through her attorney Catherine White said in the filing that although state GOP bylaws require a loyalty oath, none was supplied.

The complaint said the election process "allowed the Democratic left to make a mockery of this Republican primary election process through adulteration of the legitimate votes placed by bona fide Republicans."

Wamp eked out a 318-vote victory over Smedley in the GOP primary. Matt Hullander finished third.

(READ MORE: Effort to get state Republican Party to void Hamilton County's mayoral primary results faces hurdles)

State Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden said the "or" provision in TCA 2-7-15(b) provision renders its use limited because voters have two ways to qualify to vote in the primary.

Her ask - to overturn the results - may be a tough sell to the GOP's State Executive Committee in a state that has open primaries and no registration by party.

"Ultimately there are allegedly some 1,700 Democrat votes that were cast, and she argues that all of them went to Weston Wamp, so therefore the Democrats were the difference and she would win," Golden said in a phone interview Saturday with the Times Free Press.

Secret ballot provisions would make her claim impossible to verify.

Anderson County Election Administrator Mark Stevens said the kinds of safeguards or "gatekeeping" that Smedley is describing as lacking in her complaint are not common. Generally, the provisions come into play when a voter's bona fides are challenged, not for routine voter check-in at the polls.

"There is a provision in the law that allows a person or persons or groups or whoever they may be to challenge a voter," Stevens said. "And challenging a voter would be in a primary situation where they would say if you had somebody that was maybe even an executive committee member of that county wanting to vote in the other primary, a person could contest or basically to challenge their vote and not allow them to vote in that primary.

"You don't see that very often. It happens, it's happened before, but it's not something that happens very often. That provision that is in there, again, a really dicey situation. It's a slippery slope to go down just because of the fact that you have to present a case at that time, at the polls, to do that.

"And then of course there is again a provision that would allow folks there, the poll workers there, to make that determination whether they can or they cannot vote. It's not the easiest provision to go through. It is there. It is to prevent skulduggery to take place. But again, it's one of those kinds of things you have to have some advance knowledge to do it."

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

As to the sign warning voters must be bona fide or swear an oath of allegiance prior to voting in primary, Stevens said that is not typical.

"I'm not aware of any county in the state where that's a requirement or that's even done in the state," he said.

Smedley's campaign supplied a picture of such a sign that was posted on the wall of a precinct in Williamson County during 2018 elections.

Hamilton County elections officials declined to comment, saying it's a party matter.

In at least one instance, a political party did void an election.

Angry Tennessee Democratic Party State Executive Committee members in 2008 voted to void the election results that favored 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.

Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairwoman Rachel Campbell said in a statement that Smedley along with third-place GOP finisher Matt Hullander have filed to overturn the results of a "free and fair election" in Hamilton County.

"She asserted that the 'radical left' Democrats illegally organized to disenfranchise the votes of 'bona-fide' Republicans,'" Campbell said. "Yet, this is just another example of a Republican candidate losing an election they felt entitled to win, and throwing what amounts to a child's temper tantrum. While I hesitate to spend too much time on Ms. Smedley's nonsense, it IS important that we talk about what is really happening here, and what the remedy is for citizens in this county, and this country."

Calling Smedley "shameful," Campbell noted Tennessee has an open primary system.

"This means that a voter can pull whatever ballot she or he chooses, and vote in the Republican or Democratic Primary. This is a system that the GOP has successfully used for years to tempt Democrats over to their tent, which is just one of the reasons why we now are governed by a super-majority in our governments, both local and state. If Ms. Smedley doesn't like those laws, she should speak to her friends at the Legislature."

She added, "As Chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, rest assured that there was NO organized or concerted effort to elect Mr. Wamp. Neither this organization, or any affiliated organization, sent out any communications, blasts, or texts encouraging voters to pull Republican ballots.

Stevens noted Tennessee has no party registration and is an "open primary state."

In most of areas around the state, excluding Memphis, Nashville and other scattered areas, Stevens said, "There are no Democratic party candidates, and if there were none contested, that's the reason you're seeing a lot of folks maybe jumping to the Republican ballot because there are no contested races or there are no candidates, and that's just kind of the facts the way they are right now."

Crossover voting issues have cropped up for years in Tennessee, one of 19 states with no registration by political party, according to a 2018 analysis by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. Thirty states plus the District of Columbia have party registration.

Not that there haven't been occasional efforts over the years to change that, the most recent one spurred by the Tennessee Republican Party which urged the GOP-dominated General Assembly to pass a bill banning crossover voting and requiring voter registration by party.

A measure was introduced in 2019 that would have required voters to choose between being registered as a Democrat, Republican or unaffiliated with a statewide party or other to cast a primary ballot.

Voters who chose to be unaffiliated would have been barred from voting in any primary elections.

House Bill 2073 belly-flopped in the House Local Committee, where Republicans and Democrats killed it on a 14-2 vote.

"The Republican Party's never overturned a primary vote," said Chris Clem, an attorney, Hamilton County Election Commission member and former state legislator. "Democrats rarely do it. I mean, they don't do it very often either. They've chosen the primary system, and they've chosen a loose primary system where they don't regulate really who's voting in it."

Crossover voting issues have cropped from time to time in various contests over the years. It did with a vengeance in 2012 in the state House District 31 GOP primary slugfest between incumbent Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Tracy City, and his primary challenger Ron Travis.

(READ MORE: Student voter effort cited in Smedley's complaint about Hamilton County election results)

Some of Cobb's Republican supporters, joined in some instances by then-Rhea County Election Administrator Theresa Snyder, challenged an estimated 30 voters on whether they were bona fide Republicans.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was called in to probe whether Rhea County officials acted illegally. Travis beat Cobb by 133 votes and has served in the House ever since. The TBI probe appeared to have fizzled out.

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

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