insights (2006-14)

County Election Chaos

Last week’s state Supreme Court’s decision validating voter-imposed term limits on county commissioners seems meritorious to me, but its timing was atrocious.

Coming less than 40 days before the May 2 party primaries for selecting Commission candidates, the decision has made a shambles of Knox County’s election process. The 40-day mark is important because state law doesn’t allow for changes in the ballot any closer to an election than that. Moreover, state officials have determined that the election cannot be postponed to permit an orderly candidate-selection process, and the Supreme Court also denied a request for postponement.

That leaves 12 term-limited county commissioners in the untenable position of being candidates for an office they are ineligible to hold. The contests for the other seven seats on that 19-member body aren’t directly affected but will unfortunately be clouded by the murk that overhangs the May 2 election as a whole.

As of this writing, many of affected commissioners were still in a state of denial and exploring how they might contest the applicability of the provision of the Knox County Charter, adopted by voters in a 1994 referendum, that limits elected county officials, except for judges, to two consecutive terms in office after its effective date.

But the voters have spoken, by more than a four-to-one majority on this issue, and the Supreme Court has now unanimously upheld the validity of their action. So as much as I lament the loss of several outstanding commissioners who have served the public well, an attempt on their part to save their seats would only make a bad situation worse.

After May 2, state election officials have advised that the Knox County Election Commission can remove the names of any term-limited incumbents who win their primaries from the ballot for the county’s Aug. 1 general election.

In their stead, those same officials have pointed to a provision of state law that allows political parties to pick replacement candidates by party caucus in the event a nominated candidate is found to be ineligible. It’s thus incumbent on the county’s party chairmen, Republican Brian Hornback and Democrat Jim Gray, to afford as participative a process as possible for selecting the replacement candidates. But a caucus is inherently a poor substitute for a primary in which all voters have their say. So commissioners selected and elected in this manner will be tainted by the stigma of back-room politics.

In four of the 12 affected commission districts, term-limited incumbents have no opponents (of either party) and are thus assured of nomination. Compounding the stigma associated with the caucus selection process in these cases is the fact that only the party whose candidate is declared ineligible will be allowed to pick a successor, who will then run unopposed in the August general election (save only the possibility of a write-in opponent).

In districts where term-limited incumbents face primary opponents, one might hope their opponents will prevail in order to avoid resort to caucus selection. But in several cases that result would also be a travesty. A prime example is the 4th District seat in the western suburbs where progressive two-term incumbent John Schmid is being challenged in the Republican primary by a right-wing opponent, Mike Alford, who is in no way representative of the district. A Republican primary challenge to veteran Commissioner Wanda Moody for a 3rd district seat is quite similar. So those two veterans are obliged to soldier on through the primary, even though ineligible for reelection, in order to preserve their seats for more representative successors.

How could the Supreme Court, combined with the workings of state election law, have perpetrated such a travesty, you may ask. And there is no good answer. If the court had ruled a few months sooner, the election process could have adapted to it in an orderly way and avoided the trauma. But the case before the court, from Shelby County, progressed from a chancery court ruling there last summer to a state Appeals Court decision in November and thence on appeal to the state Supreme Court. There were difficult state constitutional issues involved, as evidenced by the fact that the Supreme Court overturned an appeals court decision invalidating Shelby County’s term limits on its county commissioners. But it now seems clear that the Supreme Court should have expedited matters by taking an appeal directly from Shelby’s chancery court, which it declined to do.

As it happens, Shelby and Knox are the only two counties in the state with a charter form of government. And it is only such counties, the Supreme Court held, that have delegated authority to set qualifications for elected officials whose positions are prescribed by the state Constitution. In addition to county commissioners, these include the county mayor, sheriff, trustee, property assessor, register of deeds, and county clerk.

As courts are wont to do, the Supreme Court decided only the case before it, which pertained to county commissioners. But the reasoning behind the court’s decision doesn’t leave much room for doubt that county charters can impose term limits on other so-called constitutional offices as well. However, it will take separate court proceedings to make those determinations.

Procedures, or lack of same, for getting those determinations appear even more anomalous than those that have made a shambles of County Commission elections. But addressing those anomalies will have to be the subject of a separate column. Suffice it to say for now that as valid as Knox County’s term limits would appear to be, the tortuous path to their enforcement could wreak havoc on the county’s body politic.