Only One Election
It is up to the political parties to choose their candidates
by Frank Cagle
Hosting a radio talk show, I used to get calls from people outraged because they were being asked whether they were Democrats or Republicans when they went to vote in a primary. Yes, if you are picking the Democratic candidates for the general election you need to vote in the Democratic primary. If you are picking the Republican candidates for the general election you need to vote in the Republican primary. It sometimes makes people angry because they can’t pick some candidates from Column A and some from Column B during a primary election. No, you can’t go vote in the primary and vote for Democrat Randy Nichols for district attorney and simultaneously vote for Republican Mike Ragsdale for county mayor.
Technically speaking, a primary is not even an election. It is a very elaborate party caucus with a secret ballot in which you are picking the candidates that will be on the ballot in the August election. No one who wins a primary is elected to office. Let me say that again. No one who wins a primary is elected to office. If you do not have an opponent in the general election you are assured of being elected in August, unless of course the state Supreme Court says you cannot serve.
The Tennessee Constitution calls for an election in August to pick county officeholders. The Constitution doesn’t care whether these officeholders are Republicans or Democrats or independents or members of the Moon Pie Party.
That is the only election required to fill offices. There is no constitutional requirement for the Republicans, the Democrats or even the Moon Pies to have a primary election. But during the years that the Democrats constituted the Solid South, one-party rule became the norm. There had to be a way to sort out the various factions within the Democratic Party to decide which candidate would be nominated for the general election. Primary elections were established. Given its ubiquity, the primary election has come to be seen as equal to or even more important than the general election.
In West and Middle Tennessee, winning the Democratic primary used to mean election, and the general election became a formality. In East Tennessee, heavily Republican one-party counties held primaries that were tantamount to elections.
The Legislature, controlled by Democrats and Republicans, has established primaries, the dates of the primaries, and authorized the expenditure of public funds to hold these elections to help the political parties choose their candidates.
You no doubt think this has been a rather simplistic little primer on elections, but you would be amazed at the number of people who just don’t grasp the concept.
When most of the incumbent Knox County commissioners who are term-limited win their respective primaries, they will be removed from the ballot for the general election. It will then be up to the political parties to pick new candidates to replace them. The county parties will pick candidates under their rules and regulations. It is certainly unusual. It is not as fair as the primary system. It does not encourage as many voters to take part in the process.
But here are a few things to remember:
• If there are hundreds of people attending Republican conventions, an average of 10 to 50 delegates from each precinct, it may be that there will be as many people picking the new county commissioners as the number of people who usually turn out to vote in a Knoxville City Council district election.
• The purpose of the Democratic and Republican party convocations is to pick candidates to represent the respective parties. If you don’t care enough to be active in either party, run as a delegate or work in elections, then don’t be surprised about being shut out of the process. You can vote in the general election and if you don’t like the candidates the parties select, don’t vote for them.
• If you are running as a write-in candidate, good luck. You have to win the primary. There are people on the primary ballot who aren’t going to win the primary. They will not be on the general election ballot. If you are running a write-in race and you do not win the primary, you will not be on the general election ballot either. Unless the county party convention picks you.
Yes, the Knox County elections are a mess. To paraphrase Dickens, yes, the Supreme Court are a ass. Yes, there will be rampant unfairness.
But if there is one thing this go-around should teach us all it is that parties do matter; in the final analysis they pick candidates to represent them and they perform a valuable function in the election process.
Of course, it may not prevent some party officials from being tarred and feathered before all this is over.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .