Note: This editorial was updated Sunday, May 22, 2022, at 11 a.m. to correct the setting of the movie "Casablanca" to French Morocco.
"Show me your papers!" That is the chilling authoritarian demand that became the first line in the 1942 movie "Casablanca" about encroaching Nazi control in French Morocco.
Might this demand now become the norm in the election polling precincts of Tennessee?
It may if some of the most fringe of our Republican leaders have their way, and it seems to be on the table in the election challenge filed this week by failed GOP Hamilton County mayoral candidates Sabrena Smedley and Matt Hullander. Smedley is contesting the outcome of her May 3 mayoral race and seeking to overturn the legitimate victory of another Republican, Weston Wamp, who out-polled Smedley by 318 votes. She claims Wamp won the election because Democrats "crossed over" to vote for him.
The Hamilton County Election Commission certified the vote last week, but Smedley, a two-term Hamilton County county commissioner, this week formally asked the 66-member Tennessee Republican Party's State Executive Committee to void the results and either declare her the winner or set a new election.
We already have made clear that we believe voters — all voters, not political parties — should determine the winners of our elections.
But with this effort at what we deem another "big lie" over an election, Smedley, Hullander and their ilk are trying to make local political parties and our election officials police who can vote and how.
With this complaint, Smedley contends it's not enough to require us all to be registered to vote, stand in line, show a photo ID and verify our address. No. That's not enough. They want us to be "bona fide" Republican or Democratic voters. And if we don't pass the test, they want us to declare an oath of allegiance.
Vote our way and prove it.
This needs to set off emergency warning sirens in all of us.
Smedley's complaint states, "there was no mechanism in place to vet bona fide Republican voters at the polls, by either the Hamilton County Election Commission or the local Republican Party."
Well, no, there wasn't. In Tennessee, voters don't register by party, but state law stipulates that only "bona fide" members of a particular party are allowed to vote in that party's primary. At the polls, typically, election officials take a voter's request for a Republican or Democratic ballot as their intent to affiliate with that party.
Yet there is a Catch-22 in all this.
Neither state law nor the political parties define a "bona fide" member for the purposes of voting, Chris Acuff, an assistant professor in the department of political science and public service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, told the Times Free Press.
The Tennessee Republican Party's bylaws do define bona fide members for the purposes of candidacy, but this has not been applied to voters, he said.
But Smedley's complaint suggests voting records should be used to confirm voters are bona fide party members before they are allowed to vote in a primary. The complaint states, "the voting history record is information which only the Hamilton County Election Commission possesses" and it should be "mandatory that all polls must have a digital voter history record available at the check point ."
So Smedley would have election officials, prompted by a skeptical or curious poll worker, peer into our voting histories and determine our bona fides?
And if our papers are deemed un-bona fide, we'll be asked to "declare allegiance" to a particular party?
Aside from seeming far more intrusive of our privacy than most of us expect, there's another hitch in this thinking: State law does not prohibit someone from voting in a particular primary based on their voting history.
(But just wait until Tennessee's supermajority GOP General Assembly starts picking at it. What's next? Poll tests?)
If all this isn't making you itch, we worry that you're not breathing. Imagine the potential for harassment. Especially in majority red counties where Democratic voters often have no or little choice on their own primary ballots. If you're not worried, you have far more patience with petty politicians manipulating your rights than we do.
UTC's Acuff also seems a bit skeptical.
"In practice, challenging an average voters' party allegiance is unenforceable," he said. "An election official denying someone the right to vote based upon a subjective definition of party membership could be seen as a form of voter disenfranchisement."
We wonder if these sore losers in the Republican Party really understand what they are inviting here.
We wonder if they have thought through the consequences of this misguided attempt to thwart an election they lost? Smedley and Hullander, by trying to make more of us potentially say goodbye to our voting rights, have blackened the eye of the Republican Party in Hamilton County.
Like Bogie said to Ilsa just before the plane taxied down the Casablanca Airport runway: Here's looking at you, kid.