Less than two weeks after Tennessee leaders came to town and presented awards to local high schools that registered students to vote, the chairwoman of the Hamilton County Commission cited a student registration effort as proof of an alleged improper effort to sink her chances in her unsuccessful run for county mayor.
Sabrena Smedley, who lost the May 3 Republican primary election to Weston Wamp, accused the local alumnae chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority of election interference based on several Facebook posts of teenagers voting for the first time.
The posts are included in Smedley's 21-page complaint to the Tennessee Republican Party's State Executive Committee alleging a "highly organized campaign by the Democratic Left to adulterate the votes of bona fide Republicans."
Smedley this week asked the party to overturn the election results, based largely on the contention that Democrats participated in the GOP primary to support Wamp — an allegation Wamp's campaign says is not borne out by the election results.
Smedley's complaint did not include evidence of voter manipulation or partisanship by the historically Black sorority or any evidence that the students participated in the Republican primary — or that they were not entitled to do so — or that they voted for Wamp. The complaint simply notes that the first-time-voter effort took place.
Similar efforts at Ivy Academy and the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences were commended during a visit to Chattanooga this month by Secretary of State Tre Hargett.
The Hamilton County Election Commission certified the primary election results on May 13, declaring Wamp the winner.
Amy Davis, president of the Chattanooga Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press the allegations included in Smedley's complaint are false and the public is being misled.
"We are a nonpartisan organization," Davis said. "We do not promote any particular party or endorse candidates. And we did not do any of that with the students that we assisted."
Delta Sigma Theta has helped register voters for years, including young people registering for the first time, Davis said. This year, the alumni chapter sponsored a bus trip, chaperoned by school district employees, to take registered voters to the polls for early voting. The group recognized that some young people were energized to get registered but did not have the resources to make it to the polls at election time.
Davis said the sorority's efforts were to help young people get involved in the civic process and exercise their constitutional right to vote.
"Our intent was to encourage registration and casting a ballot," Davis said. "And that is what I'm trying to clear up."
Smedley told the Times Free Press by phone she was saving any public comment on the complaint until a possible trial. She referred questions to political consultant Tom Ingram, who said he was not in a position to discuss the specifics of the complaint, such as why the teenagers voting was problematic or whether there is evidence the students were coerced to vote a certain way.
"I'll let the complaint speak for itself, but I think it raises the question about whether there was an organized effort by official Democrats, or Democrat-supported organizations, to influence Democrat votes in the Republican primary," Ingram said.
Ingram said the campaign does not know for whom the teenagers voted. It would be up to the Republican committee to investigate and make decisions about the questions raised in the complaint, he said.
In late April, around 50 students from Tyner Academy and Howard High School participated in the program to go vote, Davis said.
School employees acted as chaperones for the event, as is school policy for field trips. The school system did not receive any information about or see voter coercion or manipulation, Hamilton County Schools said in a statement.
Superintendent Justin Robertson, in a statement to the Times Free Press, said it is important for students to be involved in the civic process of voting and said the school system was proud Tennessee recognized Ivy Academy and the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences for registering 100% of students who were eligible to vote.
"More, we are thankful for a non-partisan partner, committed to developing civic engagement with our students, for creating the opportunity for registered voters at Tyner and Howard high schools to vote during early voting," Robertson said in the statement. "We hope that more partners will collaborate with us in the future to create opportunities for all students registered to vote to actively participate in our democracy through voting."
After the April trip, the two schools celebrated their students voting for the first time, posting pictures of smiling teenagers and videos of them going into the polls.
"What an amazing experience watching these future leaders cast their first vote!!" said an April 28 Facebook post from The Howard School.
On May 7, screenshots of the posts, and screenshots of tax records, were shared on the Facebook page of Patriots Engage, an America First conservative action group with a Chattanooga chapter that has been critical of Wamp and Matt Hullander, the third-place county mayoral candidate.
The same screenshots posted by Patriots Engage were attached to Smedley's complaint of the alleged coordinated effort by liberals to interfere in the Republican election, despite Tennessee having open primaries, that is, Tennessee voters do not affiliate with a particular party when they register to vote, and voters can select the primary ballot of their choice when voting.
The complaint also alleged students from Brainerd High School were bused to the polls, a claim that appears to be false. The sorority helped register students at Brainerd, Davis said, but those students were not transported to the polls. Hamilton County Schools confirmed the two schools involved in the bus program were Tyner and Howard.
Ingram said a lot of people, including Hullander, encouraged Smedley to file the complaint after election night.
"It's been suggested this is sour grapes. It's anything but," Ingram said. "It's just, there were so many questions. There was so much pressure on Sabrena's campaign, from Matt's campaign and other influences in Chattanooga, to file a complaint that they made a decision last week on deadline to file it, rather than look back on the process and wish they had filed it."
Smedley's complaint also accuses Chattanooga Clergy for Justice, a Black-led group of local pastors trying to reform Hamilton County Sheriff's Office policies, of being involved in election interference.
The alleged evidence of the group's involvement, attached to Smedley's complaint, is a May 4 article from the news website The Chattanoogan that cites unnamed "sources in the Black community" and a text blast that was not connected to the clergy group but allegedly encouraged Democrats to vote for Wamp.
Pastors from Chattanooga Clergy for Justice met Thursday evening and released a two-sentence statement in response to the complaint.
"People in Hamilton County are dying," the group said. "Chattanooga Clergy for Justice's priority is addressing HCSO use of force policy and protecting the civil rights and safety of those incarcerated at Silverdale."
Davis said she hopes the teenagers who voted for the first time this spring do not get discouraged from being wrapped up in this alleged scandal. Voting is a right, she said, referencing the famous phrase from John Lewis, the late congressman and civil rights icon.
"He said it best: This is good trouble," Davis said, adding she would not want the students to "let those groups or individuals tear down and make them feel less for upholding their right to vote."