The Hamilton County Election Commission on Wednesday certified the results of last week's special election for the District 8 seat on the Chattanooga City Council, which now gives the losing candidate in the race, Marie Mott, five days to challenge the outcome in Chancery Court.
"What we're saying here today with this certification is that based on the oversight and the authority that we have, we've done our job to have a fair and equitable election," Election Commission Chairman Michael Walden said. "If other people interfered outside of that, that's an issue for Chancery Court."
Mott, a local activist, lost to appointed incumbent Marvene Noel by a 70-vote margin in the runoff Sept. 15, which saw turnout of 731 of the district's 8,295 eligible voters. Mott was initially the top vote-getter in the Aug. 4 contest for the seat, securing 46.7% of the ballots, but the election went to a runoff because none of the candidates were able to secure more than 50% of the vote.
Mott and Malarie B. Marsh, the third-place finisher in the Aug. 4 race, have both filed complaints with the Election Commission. Marsh did not proceed to the runoff and endorsed Mott in the September election.
Walden said Wednesday that Chattanooga officials were advised not to swear in Noel until the results of the Sept. 15 runoff were certified by the panel, but Noel took the oath of office during the City Council meeting Tuesday evening, the night before the commission action.
"That's not really our position to tell them they can't," Administrator of Elections Scott Allen told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "It's their counsel, their attorneys. That's ultimately their decision, but we just advised them of the certification coming today and that the election, until it's certified, all results are unofficial."
Mott was embroiled in a pair of controversies in the days leading up to the Sept. 15 runoff. She fended off criticism on Twitter earlier this month after an anonymous account posted a 35-second clip in which Mott states Jews were among those who owned slaves in the United States and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The clip was pulled from a longer 30-minute video originally posted in 2020.
Mott defended her remarks in the replies, which drew renewed criticism. In a letter with 32 signatures, members of Chattanooga's Jewish community condemned those comments, stating that Mott had exaggerated historical facts and presented disinformation about the Civil War and slavery.
Mott responded to criticism with a video on social media, in which she said, "I don't know a soft way to say you enslaved my ancestors," she said. "I don't know how to soften the blow of that, and don't ask me to."
The day before the election, Chattanooga police released body camera footage of a Sept. 11 traffic stop of Mott in the Avondale area. Police say they pulled Mott over because her passenger side headlight was out. Mott accused the officers of harassment and repeatedly swore at them.
She provided her driver's license but declined to hand over her registration or proof of insurance. Police cited Mott for a light law violation, financial responsibility and improper display of her tags, according to an incident report.
Election Commissioner Jerry Summers said it's not the panel's responsibility to review Mott's complaints, but he added that there are certain aspects of the race that don't pass the "smell test," referencing the public airing of Mott's traffic stop and the city's decision to swear in Noel the day before results were certified.
"I'm not making any accusations against anybody because there's not a case that we would decide, but ... there's so many things in here that (would) concern me if I was a lawyer," Summers said.
In her complaints submitted to the Election Commission, Mott said two employees in the mayor's office supported Noel by campaigning for her during community and neighborhood association meetings -- one of them on election day. Claiming it constituted a violation under state law, she also stated that council members and Mayor Tim Kelly publicly endorsed Noel and "specifically participated in various publications against me as a candidate."
"Mayor Kelly properly and routinely exercised his rights provided by federal law to express his opinions on political issues and candidates," Chattanooga City Attorney Emily O'Donnell said in a statement Tuesday. "As with many other elected officials who have endorsed political candidates, no part of Mayor Kelly's endorsement violated state or federal law."
Marsh's complaint stated that while working as a volunteer at the polls she "had to show several people at Avondale and Carver centers where to go vote" because they were told by staff that they didn't live in District 8. The complaint stated that Marsh looked at their voter cards and determined that they should have been allowed to vote in the election.
Allen said Wednesday that his office has only been made aware of two people who were turned away at the Avondale Community Center precinct, which was split during the runoff election between District 8 and District 9. Both those voters live in the District 9 boundaries.
"Those are the only two names we've been given that we've been able to research that people were turned away, and they were not in fact in the district," Allen told election commissioners.
The polling places involved in the election last week were Alton Park, Avondale, Bushtown, Courthouse, Downtown, East Chattanooga, East Lake, Eastside and Ridgedale.
Another complaint from Mott claimed Noel had failed to properly report campaign finance information. However, Allen said both Noel and Mott are late on their financial disclosures and will be receiving a certified letter informing them those documents must be filed.
Kelly's chief of staff, Joda Thongnopnua, said in a Twitter thread Tuesday that elected officials are expected to use their roles for political advocacy, including during election season.
"That's part of their job," he wrote. "The idea that elected officials can't weigh into elections is not only odd, it's contrary to American political norms. A cursory Google for 'Mayor endorses' turns up numerous examples of this all across the country, if one wanted to confirm this themselves."
On Wednesday, mayoral spokesperson Ellis Smith said the city had nothing further to add.
Mott led local demonstrations in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
She still faces charges pending from that time: One count of disorderly conduct, one count of obstruction of a highway, one count of reckless burning and one count of vandalism. She will appear before Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Boyd Patterson on Nov. 19.
The Election Commission also approved the expenses for the District 8 runoff, which amounted to $46,588.68. The city is covering 100% of that total.
Reporter La Shawn Pagán contributed to this story.