My heart pounds as I pull onto Main Street. Not so much because of the voting scandal that has rocked our little community, but because I see the gauntlet of candidate supporters on the courthouse lawn and I’m terrified I’ll run over one when they jump into the street to wave their little signs. I try to avoid eye contact as I search for a parking space. Preferably one where I don’t have to parallel park.
When my Dad ran for tax assessor a couple of years ago on the Democratic ticket, our neighbors, who had recently moved here from Florida, lamented the fact that they wouldn’t be able to support him in the county primary, since they had been registered Republicans in their home state. Dad explained that being a Republican didn’t matter, as Tennessee had an open primary. Even though my neighbor was affiliated with the Republican Party, all he had to do was ask to vote in the Democratic primary on election day.
Having lived in Tennessee all my life, I never really though about how our process of voting was different to that of other states. I honestly did not know that in some states, only registered Republicans and Democrats could vote in their respective primaries. Until the 2008 presidential election, I wasn’t really into politics at a national level, so I was not aware of how other states handled things. I remember thinking that, finally, Tennessee didn’t seem so backwards compared to the rest of the country. A person could choose which primary to vote in on election day, and not be confined to the party line.
I get out of my car and lock the door, thanking whatever gods are looking out for me that I managed to find one on the opposite side of the street from the gauntlet, and I didn’t have to parallel park. I make my way down the street to the election commission building, hoping I look Republican enough to not warrant notice from the poll watchers. Head down, avoiding eye contact, I suddenly realize that if I really wanted to appear to be a non-Democrat, maybe I shouldn’t have dressed all in blue this morning. Hindsight will get you every time.
I freely admit to being a member of the national Democratic Party. I can’t ever foresee myself voting for a Republican at the national level because my beliefs conflict too much with that of the national Republican Party. But at the state and local level, it’s different. At the local level, you have a much better chance at actually knowing the person running for office. Party doesn’t really matter locally.
I have always voted in the Democratic primaries in the past, not only because I come from a large family of Democrats, but also because many times, someone I’m related to has run on the Democratic ticket, like my Dad. But in a general election, I have voted for the Republican candidate, because I think that person would do a better job than the challenger. And that’s the right of every American citizen eligible to vote.
I make it into the building without notice. Whew! The next step is to sign in and declare my intention to vote in the Republican primary. So many people in such a tiny space! But the line moves quickly, and pretty soon I’m called up by a poll worker to present my identification. I dig around in my purse and promptly hand her my Kroger card. Oops. For a moment I suspect my vote might be challenged after all, not because I’m a Democrat in Republican clothing, but because they might think I’m nuts. But I nervously laugh it off and hand over my driver’s license. The poll worker types in my information and verifies my address.
For several years, our district has been represented by an incumbent who puts party politics ahead of the concerns of his constituents. Just to name a few, he introduced a bill in the Tennessee legislature to ban the sale of sex toys, joined legal action challenging the citizenship status of President Obama and fired the county election administrator simply because she had voted in Democratic primaries in the past (despite coming from a family of die-hard Republicans).
This last asinine move was the last straw for many voters in the county, Democrats and Republicans alike. His challenger in the Republican primary came on strong, and many of us Democrats said we’d cross party lines to vote for the challenger, because we all agree our district needs new blood, someone who will put the will of the people ahead of politics. The Democratic candidate had no challenger in the primary. And, quite frankly, I’ve liked what the challenger has had to say.
“Would you like to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary today?” the election official asks.
“Republican,” I reply.
She prints off my voting paper and highlights two lines. “Sign there, please.” I do so.
Crossing party lines to vote in the other party’s primary has never, ever been an issue in the history of our county, perhaps even in the state. But when one high-profile, long-standing Democrat came in Monday morning, asking to vote in the Republican primary, someone inside the election commission office notified a relative of the incumbent, who immediately came inside to challenge her right to vote Republican. Nearly everyone was surprised to discover that, despite Tennessee being an open primary state, anyone can challenge the legitimacy another voter’s vote on the following grounds:
- He/She is not a registered voter at the polling place.
- He/She is not the registered voter under whose name he/she has applied to vote.
- He/She has already voted in the election (previously issued a ballot).
- He/She has become ineligible to vote in the election being conducted (for example, he/she has moved outside the district/state or has been convicted of a felony.
- He/She is not qualified under TCA 2-7-126 (meaning he/she is not a bona fide member of the political party in whose primary they seek to vote).
The woman was challenged on the basis that she was not a legitimate member of the Republican party. And she’s not. But again, this has never been enforced. Many, many people have crossed party lines in the past. Why now, when an incumbent is in danger of losing his seat, is this little-known statute suddenly being put into play?
I’m quickly escorted past the long line of people waiting to cast their ballot, since the booths for those living in districts 6-9 are in a separate area. I totally feel like I’m cutting line, as I have to say “excuse me” to get by people standing in doorways. A few of them give me a funny look. But another poll worker notices me standing in the hall and tells me I’m OK where I’m at. Still no sign of a challenge.
After having her vote challenged, the woman took an oath to support the Republican party in front of a panel of three election judges. According to the challenge procedure, “The voter is required to be permitted to vote in a primary if he declares his allegiance to the political party in whose primary he seeks to vote and states that he intends to affiliate with that party. … It would be extremely rare to deny a citizen the right to vote in a primary he wished to vote in because Tennessee has no registration by party.”
After taking the oath in front of the election judges, all of whom were appointed by a crony of the incumbent, they decided she was not Republican enough to vote in the primary. Her vote was sealed in an envelope and marked “REJECTED.” Her vote for her candidate of choice was denied.
I’m beckoned to an empty voting machine. The poll worker takes my paper, queues up the machine, and pulls up the Republican primary ballot. Moment of truth. He tells me that if I have any questions about the ballot, just ask. Then he steps away. I am left alone to cast my vote in private.
TCA (Tennessee Code Annotated) 2-7-115(b)(2) states, “A registered voter is entitled to vote in a primary election for offices for which the voter is qualified to vote at the polling place where the voter is registered if: (1) The voter is a bona fide member of and affiliated with the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote; or (2) At the time the voter seeks to vote, the voter declares allegiance to the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote and states that the voter intends to affiliate with that party.”
Even though the woman took her oath, declaring her allegiance to the Republican party, regardless for how long, her vote was still denied. And it has opened up a floodgate of outrage, on both sides of the issue.
I scroll through the pages of the ballot, making my choices with care. I double check everything when I get to the end, then press the red button. My vote has been cast.
“All done?” the poll worker asks, as he hands me a sticker that reads, “My vote counted!”
“Yes,” I reply, attaching it to my shirt. “Thank you.”
So the questions remains. Does Tennessee have an open primary or not? Why was this one woman singled out and denied a right to vote for her candidate, when so many others, myself included, were allowed to vote without challenge? Why would a candidate in danger of losing his seat — a Republican candidate who has voted in Democratic primaries in the past — urge friends and relatives to challenge the legitimacy of other voters?
This is a clear-cut case of voter intimidation and discrimination. Which, hopefully, appears to be back-firing. I do believe we shall see the result of this disastrous action after the polls close on election day, Aug. 5.
I hurry out the door, exit the building, walking past the gauntlet to my car, feeling a sense of accomplishment. I had successfully infiltrated the Republican party to vote for my candidate of choice, without challenge.