November will mark the first presidential election since Harry S. Truman upset Thomas E. Dewey that there’ll be no ballots cast at Belle Morris Elementary School. The Knox County Election Commission, by a 3-2 party-line vote, voted this week to support administrator Cliff Rodgers’ decision to close down 16-South (Belle Morris) and reroute its voters to the smaller 16-N (Larry G. Cox Recreation Center). For years, Knoxville politicos (particularly Democrats) have considered the Belle Morris Election Day vote total a harbinger of the final result. Common wisdom says Democrats can’t win a city election without a strong showing in the big, labor-friendly 16-South.
On Monday, the election commission convened at its usual 8 a.m. meeting time, and Republican commissioners waxed indignant that a contingent of Belle Morris voters has accused them of behaving in a partisan fashion. Rodgers, a lawyer who frequently refers to his years of clerking for the late federal judge James Jarvis, defended his decision to close Belle Morris after an unidentified, presumably disabled voter called to complain that the polling place was hard to get to. Rodgers said he visited the school (for the first time) and found that designated handicapped parking spaces are 81 feet from the back door and 195 feet from the gym. “For voters in wheelchairs, walking canes, or walkers, every step can be arduous,” Rodgers said, citing Belle Morris’ parking problems and more general difficulties with using schools as voting sites.
“I’ve made some tough decisions in my life. In my view this was not a tough decision.... This commission unanimously approved the relocation. To reopen the Belle Morris polling place now would be the wrong decision because it would be moving voters twice in three months during the same election year. Even if you believe Belle Morris should be reopened, don’t do it this year,” he said.
He finished his presentation with a declaration of neutrality: “At no time did partisan politics enter into my decision-making. I was never a partisan in federal court, and I am not a partisan now.”
Former County Commissioner Mark Harmon—Democrat, Belle Morris voter, and leader of the movement to reopen Belle Morris—didn’t buy it. He challenged Rodgers’ contentions about parking and handicapped accessibility, and said that the decision to close Belle Morris down has dislocated hundreds of voters during an important election year on the basis of one undocumented complaint left on a telephone answering machine.
He got aggressive pushback from Commissioner Bob Bowman, one of the three Republicans on the five-member body, who said that Amy Broyles (a Democrat who represents the Belle Morris area on County Commission) supported a “merged voting plan” that would have closed down Belle Morris as well as other polling places all over the county. He was referring, presumably, to “convenience voting,” which was advocated by former administrator Greg Mackay (a Democrat) and would have extended the early-voting period and cut back Election Day polling sites. It was voted down by the Republican commissioners.
Bowman also denied any partisan motives and railed about Harmon’s participation in a press conference in the Belle Morris parking lot, which he said was evidence that Harmon is spineless and lacking in character and manliness.
“Why wouldn’t you be a man and come down and meet with Mr. Rodgers?” he asked.
Harmon doubled down on his criticism and said that Bowman’s responses to Belle Morris-area constituents who protested the closing have been both partisan and bullying. He submitted the copy of a Bowman e-mail response that criticized the “Democratic commissioners” for failing “to discuss this matter with the community,” and said “No GOP county leader has expressed any concerns.”
Later that day, Mackay, who was ousted by the Republican majority last year, posted an observation on the KnoxViews website that Republican state Rep. Bill Dunn had sponsored a bill when the Democrats were still in charge of the Election Commission to make it less partisan: “His plan had each party nominate two commissioners in every county. Then these four commissioners would meet in their respective counties and choose a fifth member as chair. Made a lot of sense.”
When contacted after the meeting, Dunn confirmed Mackay’s recollection and said the conduct of some election commissions has made him queasy.
“Commissioners would show up for meetings wearing campaign paraphernalia and T-shirts,” he says. “What I said was that Pat Summitt is a class act, but you wouldn’t want her refereeing the games. My bill also said, if you’re going to be on the election commission, you can’t put up yard signs, etc. The late [Memphis Democrat] Ulysses Jones kept telling me it’s a political position, but my question always was, ‘How do you make that body get the fairest result?’”
When asked if he’d still support such a bill now that Republicans control the state’s election commissions, he had a one-word response: “Yes.”