Staff photo by Olivia Ross / The Hamilton County Election Commission was an early voting site in the May 3 county primary election.

Over this week, as we've waited for the Tennessee Republican Party State Executive Committee to consider the challenge to the outcome of the Republican primary for county mayor, a Chattanooga Times Free Press deep-dive into voter data shows us exactly what we all already instinctively know: For all the braying we all do over partisan red and blue politics here and nationally, when it comes down to shading in the circle beside candidate names, we vote our hearts. Because we can.

All of us who care about the future of our country, state, county and schools can — and will — vote to try to ensure we get the best possible leaders to represent us. If that means voting for a Democrat when we lean Republican, or voting for a Republican when we lean Democratic, so be it.

The somewhat derogatory term for that voting wiggle is "crossover" voting. The more correct and pleasing description is "democracy" — voting as we want to because voting is our right.

Former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, who plays his political chips close to the vest and does not identify with any party, summed it up best: "I'm an unrepentant crossover voter. You vote for the candidate and not for the party. I'm surprised it's an issue."

Littlefield voted in the 2012 and 2016 Republican primaries and the 2020 Democratic primary. We have long thought there are more of us like Littlefield than not — locally or nationally. We believe there are few of us who've not made similar shifts through the years and elections cycles as we weighed what we viewed as the strengths and weaknesses of those seeking to represent us.

Usually, most of us tend to think of crossover voting as something that happens more in the presidential primary years, but according to data provided by the Hamilton County Election Commission and analyzed by the TFP, that's not really the case.

What we found was that 60,241 unique residents voted at least once during the county primary elections in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022.

During those four elections, 2,626 voters — 4.3% — crossed over from one party to the other at least once.

Of them, 115 pulled a Democratic ballot in 2010, 2014 and 2018, then voted Republican in 2022; 305 did not vote in 2010 but voted Democratic in 2014 and 2018, then Republican in 2022; 1,215 voted Democratic in 2018 and Republican in 2022.

Those moves seem to reflect, at least in part, the contests — or lack of them — on the ballots.

For context, the 2010, 2014 and 2018 Democratic ballots had contested races only in, at most, three districts — but usually those contested races were in the county's pivotal minority districts. The 2018 blue ballot also, for the first time in those years, had two candidates seeking the Democratic Party's mayoral bid.

But this year, Democrats had only two commission districts in play on their ballot, and only one of those was a critical minority district.

On the other hand, the 2022 Republican ballot held the first competitive GOP mayoral and county district attorney races voters have seen in recent history, as well as a slew of county commission and school board races — including some in brand new districts.

Gosh, why should voters — voters of any stripe — care?

And let's talk about Republican crossover. That happens, too.

The March 2020 primary election offers that best example. Then-President Donald Trump had only nominal opposition in his re-election bid. But Democrats had a sticky, competitive primary among Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and others.

Of the 62,503 people who voted in the March 2020 primary election, 37,174 voted in the Democratic primary — including 431 people who had voted Republican in the 2012 and 2016 presidential primary elections.

If anything in these numbers is surprising, and devastatingly disappointing, it is that so few of us voted. Year after year. Hamilton County has about 232,750 eligible voters, according to election officials.

Local voter crossovers show concern and interest in our county's future and a continuing effort to find the best possible leadership. The real threat is voter discouragement or disinterest.

Voting — any way we want to — is a right. It is our right, not a political party's right.

But it's a right that is squandered and flung to the wind if we don't use it.