Even among those who typically vote in a particular party's primary elections, it's not uncommon for Hamilton County voters to pull a ballot from the other side.
Those voters, known as crossover voters, are at the heart of Hamilton County Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley's challenge of this month's Republican primary election results for mayor. She claims an inordinate number of Democrats crossed over to vote for Weston Wamp, who won the election.
The Tennessee Republican Party will hear her case for invalidating the election Friday evening.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press reviewed voter data to see how many previous Democratic voters crossed over to vote in the GOP primary this month. The data does not show who they voted for because the ballots themselves are secret.
According to data provided by the Hamilton County Election Commission and analyzed by the Times Free Press, 60,241 unique residents voted at least once during the county primary elections in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022.
During those four elections, 2,626 voters crossed over from one party to the other at least once.
Of those voters:
- 115 pulled a Democratic ballot in 2010, 2014 and 2018, then voted Republican in 2022.
- 305 voters did not vote in 2010, voted Democrat in 2014 and 2018 and voted Republican in 2022.
- 1,215 voted Democrat in 2018 and Republican in 2022, county records show.
To put those 1,635 crossover votes in context, there were more than 40,000 votes cast in the GOP primary in 2022.
One likely reason Democrats crossed over is there were few contested Democratic races on the ballot, and the Republican primary had several competitive races.
The situation was reversed in the March 2020 presidential primaries. Then-President Donald Trump had only nominal opposition in his re-election bid. But Democrats were in the thick of a competitive primary between Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and others.
Of the 62,503 people who voted in the March 2020 primary election, 431 people who voted in the Democratic primary had voted Republican in the 2012 and 2016 presidential primary elections. That's out of 37,174 Democratic votes in that primary.
Among the crossover voters was former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, who does not identify as a member of any political party but voted in the 2012 and 2016 Republican primaries and the 2020 Democratic primary.
"I'm an unrepentant crossover voter," he said by phone. "You vote for the candidate and not for the party. I'm surprised it's an issue."
East Brainerd residents Anne and Joel Clements were also among the 431 who crossed over to vote in the Democratic primary that year after voting Republican in the 2012 and 2016 primary elections.
"We're very independent," Anne Clements said by phone. "We vote for the person. I'm not ashamed of that."
Signal Mountain resident Anne Rittenberry said she typically votes Republican but pulled a Democratic ballot in the 2020 primary over distaste for Trump.
"I think we ought not to just stick to a party line," she said. "We ought to look at the candidate and the candidate's record and the candidate's character and how the candidate would represent the country and the world."
A database of county voting records provided to the Times Free Press also indicated that Hamilton County Trustee Bill Hullander, a Republican, was among those who voted Republican in the 2012 and 2016 primary elections but pulled a Democratic ballot in the 2020 primary. His son, Matt Hullander, came in third place in this month's mayoral contest and is joining Smedley's challenge of the election results.
The county voter data also showed that fellow Republican Charles Wysong was among those who voted Republican in the 2012 and 2016 primary elections but pulled a Democratic ballot in the 2020 primary. Wysong has been interested in the crossover voting issue and had spoken to the Hamilton County Election Commission to complain of Democrats crossing over.
"I don't know how many crossed over to vote, but we really didn't have a Republican primary," Wysong said of this month's election. "We had something else."
When questioned, both Hullander and Wysong said the voter records were mistaken - that they voted the Republican ballot in the 2020 primary.
Hamilton County Election Commission Assistant Administrator of Elections Nate Foster checked the "poll book entries" for Hullander and Wysong and said the entries showed that both voted Republican in the 2020 primary. Foster said he then adjusted the county's voter database to show both men voted in the Republican presidential primary in 2020.
"We were able to verify that the poll worker did indeed make a clerical mistake and corrected Mr. Hullander's record immediately after," Foster said by email.
Despite the errors, Foster said he is confident in the accuracy of the county's voter history database.
"Elections have been under unprecedented scrutiny in recent years, and some people, for the first time, are just now realizing that elections are not 100% perfect," he said by email. "Human error is just a fact of life."
Foster said that one of the challenges all election officials face is how best to mitigate human errors by implementing training, policies and procedures to lower the number of errors so that voters have confidence in their local elections.
"I feel like our office meets and exceeds that standard, and we continually strive for new ways to reduce human error," he said. "I've worked at the election commission for 16 years, and there are always some small incremental improvements made to the process after each election."
Email Emily Crisman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6508.