Chattanooga city elections would move to August of even-numbered years — and coincide with races for state and county offices — under a proposal going before the City Council on Tuesday.
The ordinance by Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, of Eastdale, has faced skepticism from some other members over the past few months.
The amendment to the city charter would require two votes of approval from Chattanooga City Council, and would also necessitate signoff from a majority of Chattanooga voters through a referendum, which would occur in 2025.
Currently, city elections occur in March, and races in which no candidate receives a majority of the vote proceed to a runoff in April.
Coonrod is instead proposing that city elections occur on the same day as primaries and general elections for state and county offices, beginning the first Thursday of August 2026 and reoccurring every four years. City runoffs, meanwhile, would occur on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
The bill would also limit council members to serving for four consecutive four-year terms. Council members don't currently have term limits.
Coonrod has said the goal of the ordinance is to save the city money and boost traditionally low turnout.
"When you look at the state elections, the county elections, the presidential elections, the same people should be coming out for our city elections, but they're just not," she said in a phone call Monday, adding that voters tend to be worn out after presidential races. "I think it would be helpful for us to just be on the same ballot for school board, commissioners. Everybody will be on the same ballot, and there will be more people that will come out."
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Coonrod said she hopes imposing term limits on council members will help bring fresh perspectives to the panel. Younger generations also don't have representation on the board, she noted.
"Particularly what I've seen in the Black community, we have the same people just staying in a seat forever," she said. "It shouldn't be that way. ... After a couple of terms, and this is just everybody, you've taken the community as far as you can. Allow someone else to come and reignite the fire and go as far as they can."
Over the past several months, council members have raised concerns about altering the city's election schedule. During a legislative committee meeting on Feb. 28, Council Chairman Darrin Ledford, of East Brainerd, said he was worried the change would cause city races, which are nonpartisan, to be overshadowed by state and national political rhetoric.
"I feel like people who care about what's going on in the city are going to come out and vote," he said. "I don't like voter fatigue being used to pitch this because one of the things that I've learned being up here since 2017 is the importance ... of showing up to vote. I think we're doing a disservice to those who are interested in local issues by trying to compete with presidential elections and state elections. I think that defeats the purpose."
Councilwoman Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, has shared similar reservations, stating in an August email to council members that moving the date of the city's nonpartisan elections would save some money but ultimately result in officials losing more than they gain. She later read her comments aloud at a public meeting.
County, state and national elections are partisan, she noted, and tend to be dominated by party-based rhetoric aimed at encouraging primary voters to go to the polls. Those elections tend to favor partisan lightning rods like gun violence and don't focus on new ideas or solutions, she said. The city's elections create their own separate conversation "away from the noise of partisan blather," she said.
"Candidates are motivated to work just as diligently to earn votes -- and they have an opportunity to do so based on their ideas, record, relationships and work ethic -- rather than a binary (Republican or Democrat) proposition," she said.
There have been efforts in the General Assembly to establish changes similar to the ones proposed by Coonrod. A bill co-sponsored by State. Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, would establish a process for voters to set 16-year term limits for local officials. The House version of that bill recently failed in a subcommittee, according to the General Assembly website.
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, recalled Monday that he participated in an effort several years ago to alter municipal election schedules so they aligned with ongoing state and county races.
"(Then) Mayor Andy Berke and some of the commissioners just raised up against it, so it didn't go anywhere," he said in a phone call. "Something like this has been batted around for a long time .... This is a way to get more people engaged, more people running for office at the city level, and it saves a lot money. It just makes sense. I hope they do this."
Contact David Floyd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.