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Robin Smith is a Republican candidate for House District 26

Tennessee Democrats have lost a second round in their fight to block Republicans from fielding a candidate in the state House District 26 race.

After a hearing last week, Hamilton County Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton has dismissed the Tennessee Democratic Party's lawsuit against the Hamilton County Election Commission and state Elections Coordinator Mark Goins.

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 2, alleged the commission had illegally put Republican candidate Robin Smith's name on the ballot and asked the judge to stop any use of such ballots.

Atherton dismissed the case on the issue of standing, ruling the Tennessee Democratic Party did not have enough of an interest in the outcome to bring the case in the first place. The Democrats had argued that "unlawfully" allowing Smith's name on the ballot would irreparably harm the party.

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Jean-Marie Lawrence

In a statement Tuesday, Smith called the suit "a frivolous effort to disenfranchise thousands" of voters and a "political gimmick by a desperate party attempting to secure a seat in the legislature" and an admission that a Democrat could not win at the ballot box in the Republican-leaning district. The Democratic nominee is Jean-Marie Lawrence.

Smith added: "I am saddened by this effort. Tennessee Democrats have cost Hamilton County taxpayers thousands and thousands of dollars, placed the voting rights of our citizens at risk, and attempted to damage the reputations of several people without regard for the truth or facts in this case." She said the Tennessee Democratic Party should reimburse Hamilton County taxpayers for the costs of the legal action.

The Tennessee Democratic Party's attorney, Benjamin Gastel, said the dismissal on procedural grounds didn't address the merits of the case.

The Democrats argued that the election commission wrongfully reopened qualifying after incumbent Rep. Gerald McCormick abruptly dropped his re-election bid in June. There are only a few reasons why a party may reopen qualifying if an incumbent drops out after the withdrawal deadline. One is that the candidate is required by his employer to move out of the district.

McCormick said that's what happened in his case, but the Democrats called it a sham excuse. In court papers, they pointed out McCormick had gone to considerable trouble just days before to prove he lived in the district and was able to run for re-election. They also argued the election commissioners made no effort to investigate whether McCormick's claim was true.

"We are not surprised that the Hamilton County Election Commission is trying so hard to keep our claims from being heard on the merits after it utterly failed to investigate the truth surrounding Mr. McCormick's withdrawal from this race," Gastel said in an emailed statement Tuesday night.

"We believe the trial judge is mistaken in his ruling and we will continue our fight to discover the truth and ensure that Tennessee's election laws are followed and respected."

He said an appeal is planned.

This is the second chancellor to toss the Democrats' case. The party first filed in Davidson County Chancery Court but Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman dismissed it for lack of jurisdiction. It was refiled in Hamilton County Chancery Court on July 2. Democrats at first hoped to keep Smith's name off the Republican primary ballot, but with no decision before the Aug. 2 primary they switched their focus to the Nov. 6 general election.

The Hamilton County Election Commission plans to approve the ballot for the Nov. 6 election on Sept. 14.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

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