The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation confirmed Wednesday that it has launched a probe into whether Rhea County election officials illegally blocked voters believed to be Democrats from voting in the Republican primary election.
Theresa Snyder, the county election administrator, said she and other officials did nothing wrong and were following state law. They took an active stance to block known Democrats from voting in the GOP primary because of an orchestrated campaign for crossover voting in the House District 31 primary, she said.
Snyder said some Democrats are openly supporting Ron Travis, who is challenging state Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, for the seat. The county Democratic chairman, Doris Roy, said there is no orchestrated campaign and that she has heard from Democrats who intend to vote for Cobb as well as some saying they prefer Travis.
“I am staying out of it,” Roy said. “I just tell everybody to vote their conscience.”
There is no Democrat seeking the office, so the election will effectively be decided in the Aug. 2 primary. Early voting in the primary began July 13 and continues through Saturday.
Ten voters with a history of voting in Democratic primaries have been challenged, Snyder said, including Maxine Vincent, wife of Dayton Mayor Bob Vincent. Nine, including Vincent, were declared ineligible to vote by a three-member Republican panel, she said. In the remaining case, the judges decided the woman in question was eligible.
Also, Snyder said one man who was declared ineligible to vote in the GOP primary subsequently went to another early voting location and cast a ballot there without being noticed until after the had voted. The election administrator said she believes that man, who she did not name, should be investigated for illegal voting.
At the request of District Attorney General Mike Taylor, the TBI is investigating “allegations against election officials for improperly challenging voters political affiliation when casting ballots in early voting,” said TBI spokeswoman Kristen Helm.
Vincent told the Chattanooga Times-Free Press that her request to vote in the Republican primary was rejected even though she declared allegiance to the GOP under oath. Vincent also said that she and her husband are longtime friends of Travis, an insurance agent whose own GOP credentials were challenged when he qualified as a candidate — and held by party officials to meet criteria.
Adam Nicks, exeucitve director of the state Republican Party, said the “bonafide” status of three challengers to incumbent Republican legislators were officially questioned this year and all three were found by party officials to meet the “minimum requirements” for being considered Republicans. A key requirement is that the individual has voted in Republican primaries in two of the past four primary elections held, he said.
Besides Travis, those candidates whose credentials were questioned were Kent Calfee, who is running against Rep. Julia Hurley, R-Lenoir City, and Phil Morgan Jr., who is running against Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, Nickas said.
Apparently, Rhea County is the only place in the state where a voter’s credentials have been challenged this summer, according to Mark Goins, state election coordinator.
In neighboring Roane County, part of which is included in House District 31, Election Administrator Charles Holiway said there have been no voter challenges – though there is some apparent crossover voting – and that he does not see the administrator’s role as challenging voters.
Knox County Election Administrator Cliff Rodgers, as with Holiway, said “I don’t see myself getting involved” in voter challenges and the issue has never come up in Knox County.
But in Rhea County, said Goins, “it’s gotten nasty.”
The election coordinator said he has sent a letter of reprimand to Rhea County Election Commissioner Johnny Harwood, one of two Democrats on the five-member panel, because he stated at a commission meeting, “if someone challenged him he’d have his .38 in his pocket.”
“In today’s society, I don’t laugh at those comments,” said Goins, who said he has sent an audio tape of the comments to the district attorney.
Harwood said the comment was a casual and joking remark in reply to a Republican commissioner who had jokingly told told Harwood that he would support the Democrat if his vote were challenged.
“I said, ‘I don’t need you. I might have my .38 in my pocket.’ It could have been 38 dollars or 38 cents. We all laughed about it,” he said.
Goins said that, after talking with Snyder, he believed she had not done anything illegal – though he personally would have handled some matters differently.
First, he said that an administrator preferably would not challenge a voter and not sit on the three-judge panel that rules on eligiblity. Snyder said in an interview that she did both – sit on a panel and initiate challenges – in “a couple” of the cases.
Goins said, however, there is nothing in the law that prohibits such actions by an election administrator and he therefore does not believe them illegal.
Also, Goins said he would likely accept a voter’s oath on changing parties and allow the vote to be cast. But he said the law gives broad discretion to the three-judge panel. Further, he said that Snyder and the others involved were present to observe the oath and know all the circumstances, while he was not.
Tennessee has an “open primary” system, unlike many states that require voters to register as a party member to vote in that party’s primary. But state law does declare that the parties – and election officials or even other voters – can challenge whether a given voter is a “bonafide” member of the party and block participation if he or she is deemed not to meet that standard.
But the law also says that, if a challenged primary voter “declares allegiance” to the party, that is acceptable for voting. Goins said he talked with Vincent, who said she answered affirmatively to the allegiance question under oat; but that Snyder told him Vincent did not do so.
When a voter is rejected by a three-judge panel that decision stands under state law unless the outcome of an election is contested.
Goins said that Snyder told him that one three-judge panel met and rejected a voter while a TBI agent watched the process. The man is a former county Democratic chairman and had previously served as a Democratic “technician” at voting precincts. Under state law, Democrats and Republicans can both have a “technician” on hand during voting to inspect voting machines and to observe anything done with a broken or inoperable machine.
Snyder did not mention the incident in an interview, but strongly declared that all rules were followed in the voter challenges and that she is confident the TBI will find no wrongdoing. She acted as a judge, Snyder said, in situations where another Republican was not available when the panel was convened at the polling place.
“We have had a campaign of one party to cross over and elect another party’s candidate,” said Snyder. “We haven’t enjoyed it. We don’t like it. We didn’t start it… But it came down to being obvious that’s what was happening and, to be fair to the candidates and the voters, it needed to be done.”
Snyder said there have been posting “on Facebook and everywhere” by Democrats working to have party members crossover to help Travis. The two Democrats on the Election Commission, she said, both have put up Travis campaign signs in their yards.
Democratic Commissioner Hurley Marsh and Harwood both said they had no campaign signs in their yards and there was no organized Democratic effort to help Travis. Harwood said a neighbor had a Travis sign close to his property line at one point, but had moved it at his request.