A Cleveland, Tennessee, store selling campaign gear for President Donald Trump will remain a commercial operation until the day before it becomes an early voting location on Oct. 14, and Bradley County Democrats and a Democratic Congressional candidate are up in arms.
Christopher J. Hale, Democratic candidate for the 4th Congressional District, and the Democratic Party in Bradley County have expressed concerns and even threatened legal action over the store at 2375 McGrady Drive in Southeast Cleveland.
The store dubbed The Trump Shop set up in a privately-owned former bank building on the corner of McGrady Drive and Dalton Pike featuring Trump 2020 campaign signs, American flags and signs bearing Trump's slogan "Keep America Great!"
On Twitter, Hale called use of the store as a polling site "textbook voter intimidation and suppression," saying he'd "take appropriate legal action" if the Bradley County Election Commission didn't move the early voting location to another site.
Hale elaborated in an email to the Times Free Press.
"It's unimaginable to anyone with a brain and some common sense that on October 13 at 11:59 PM a store selling partisan campaign materials and draped in partisan flags can magically turn into a neutral and safe voting site nine hours later, particularly in the midst of a global [sic] pandemic," Hale said in the email.
Hale said the local election commission is failing voters "by not doing everything within its power to ensure that noble ideal is upheld here in Tennessee."
Hale wrote in his email that he agreed with President Trump that "we need law and order surrounding the integrity of our elections. To achieve that, I told the Bradley County Election Commission at their September 17 meeting to change the TRUMP STORE early voting location to an appropriate public building or house of worship."
Hale's campaign team believes the current situation violates federal law "protecting citizens from voter intimidation in elections. We're prepared to take legal action to protect the rights of Bradley County voters," he said.
"We're currently working on obtaining sworn affidavits from Bradley County citizens — all Republicans — who say they are intimidated by voting at such a location," Hale said. "This can all be avoided and voter's rights can be protected with a [10-] minute meeting to change the location to a more suitable public building or house of worship in the community."
Bradley County Administrator of Elections Fran Green said Wednesday that the store will close Oct. 13 and the building will be cleaned and converted into an early voting location, with all the Trump store merchandise removed, when it reopens Oct. 14 for voters.
The fact that the store and early voting location share the same address doesn't violate any election rules. State officials echoed county officials.
"We are unaware of any statute or rule that might have been violated. Early voting starts Oct. 14. To be clear, any campaign material will be removed before voting begins in the building," Secretary of State spokesperson Julia Bruck said in an email.
"The law creates a campaign-free zone while voting in a location is occurring," Bruck said.
The dual-purpose issue at voting sites happens sometimes, she said.
"There are almost 1,800 voting locations in Tennessee," Bruck said. "With that many locations, there are voting sites in the state that have campaign material for candidates before voting takes place.
"Election commissions do not control those sites until voting occurs," she said. "Once voting occurs, election officials do enforce the prohibition of campaign material within 100 feet of the entrance to any voting location."
On Wednesday, Bradley County Democratic Party chairperson Stan Hurder said the building's consecutive role as a Trump store and voting location "doesn't meet the smell test."
"We have a couple close races in Bradley County, Chris Hale for Congress and Glen Scruggs for State Senate, so it's not just about the president's race, it's about local races," Hurder said of the contests between Hale and Republican Scott DeJarlais for 4th Congressional District seat and between Scruggs and Republican Todd Gardenhire for Tennessee's 10th Senate District.
"We have spoken to the Election Commission and told them they are not meeting their own standards," Hurder said. "Their website says they are dedicated to holding fair and impartial elections for our citizens, so now their plan is to have the Trump store move out on Oct. 13 to become an election place on Oct. 14, and we think that's an effort to suppress the vote."
Hurder added there was also concern about the amount of time election officials have to clean the building so voters can cast their ballots without worrying about exposure to the coronavirus, but Green said Wednesday that officials would clean and sanitize the building before election workers and voters come in.
Hurder said such close timing of the closure and reopening could create confusion for voters who might not look for the early voting location in the same spot the store had been.
The Bradley County Republican Party didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the issue, and a message left at the Trump store seeking a comment from the store operator was not immediately returned.
Hale said he doesn't blame the store or its operator.
"The Trump Store store did nothing wrong," Hale said in his email. "They are a private business trying to support the president by selling some merchandise."
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.