Nowhere in the Constitution of Tennessee or the United States are political parties mentioned, yet the two major parties wield considerable power. The Tennessee Constitution provides that every citizen over 18, duly registered, be allowed to participate in all federal, state, and local elections, yet we routinely hold elections where a citizen’s desire to support a Democrat at the federal level, for example, precludes his or her desire to support a Republican at the state level. You cannot participate in all elections; you must choose. Why taxpayers should be funding party primaries at all is not clear. Parties are not part of our electoral structure.
National surveys on party identification generally show the country split into approximate thirds: one-third Democrat, one-third Republican, and one-third independent. There are only two independents in Congress and one in the Tennessee General Assembly, so the two parties hold power far out of proportion to demographics. They have done this by rigging our election laws to their shared advantage, and the procedures for selecting election commissioners and administrators are a prime example.
Because Republicans now hold a majority in the state Legislature, every election commission in every county had to eject a Democrat and add a Republican. Independents get no place at those tables, nor do Libertarians, Greens, or any other party. The Tennessee Constitution says elections must be “fair and equal,” but two parties have devised a system that is deliberately unequal.
Knox County’s election commission is currently reviewing résumés for the administrator job. The administrator does not set policy, so his or her politics should be far less important than his competence and his knowledge of the mechanics of elections. Republicans already control the election commission, which controls the administrator.
Currently Greg Mackay is the administrator, and since taking the job in 2003, he has accomplished quite a lot. Early voting became more popular than election-day balloting during his tenure because he made sure every corner of the county had a convenient site for voting. Any citizen can vote at any early-voting location, and if you do, campaigns can cease calls and letters because Mackay made it standard procedure to e-mail each day’s roster of early voters to campaigns so they know you voted and can leave you alone. He also stop charging for the voter database, which reduces costs for candidates and allows them to keep records current. Data has been cleaned up to eliminate typos and variations on street names.
Mackay also chose the one brand that has performed without glitches when the county bought new machines, not by luck but through research and command of the issues. He successfully ran the first “convenience voting” election in the nation with this spring’s Farragut election, a variation on early voting that allows voters to cast their ballot at any location on any day from the start of early voting through election day. More voters than ever before cast ballots this past November, without problems, and Mackay led his staff through the term-limits mess, several petition drives, and write-in campaigns without compounding controversies with errors or delays.
Poll workers can now choose from five training sessions where once there was one, and data-processing jobs that took nearly a year when Mackay started now get completed in a month. When you visit the election office in the Old Courthouse, the staff is pleasant and efficient where they were once dour, but it’s the same people. Mackay has served as an international election observer in Albania and Kazakhstan, and he understands where the administrator’s duties end and the commission’s or the state’s begin.
Why do some Republicans want to replace an administrator whose competence is proven? Because they can. Whose interests would be served? Not the interests of citizens, but the party may have its own motives. Powers that do not derive from the Constitution are already suspect, especially when used to fix what ain’t broke.