Clifford Rodgers Aims to Calm Election Commission Turmoil

A new elections administrator emerges from a sometimes nasty stew of local politics

Clifford Rodgers has set two early goals for his tenure as Knox County's new elections administrator: one, learn how to do the job; and two, stay out of the headlines. Given the recent turmoil in the Election Commission office, the first may be easier than the second.

"We're down here to do the best job we can for all of the citizens and to be sure that the process works," says Rodgers, a 57-year-old lawyer whose appointment last month was just one of several twists in a soap-operatic series of events that upended the normally quiet office. "That sounds like some sort of line, but it's really the truth."

As it happens, Rodgers gets nothing but solid references from all public quarters, including from the man he replaced, longtime administrator Greg Mackay. "I think Cliff will do a good job," says Mackay, who was fired from his politically-appointed post on April 15 for the offense of being a Democrat. "I think he'll be a good administrator."

Rodgers' mild, deliberative demeanor may succeed in smoothing the waters. But the past six weeks have been a potent reminder of how convoluted and politically charged Tennessee's electoral bureaucracy really is. If you haven't been paying attention, or have been trying to but have gotten confused, a quick recap:

• On March 24, Republican members of Knox County's state legislative delegation picked local party activist Rob McNutt to replace Paul Crilly on the five-member county Election Commission. Because Republicans have a majority in the Legislature, they get to pick three-fifths of each county's local board. Crilly's a Republican, but in the last go-round two years ago, he voted to retain Mackay as administrator.

Mackay, who had himself served on the Election Commission in the 1990s, was hired to run the office in 2003, while Democrats held a legislative majority. Crilly crossed party lines to support him on the grounds that Mackay had brought order and professionalism to an office that had sometimes lacked for both. But this time, Republicans wanted the job—one of the plums of local patronage posts, paying at least $95,000 a year—to go to one of their own. So Crilly was replaced by McNutt, on the understanding that McNutt would vote with the other two Republicans on the Commission, Christopher Heagerty and Bob Bowman, to fire Mackay.

• But before they even got that far, News Sentinel reporter Mike Donila revealed that McNutt had apparently voted in the wrong precinct for two years from 1999-2001 without updating his residential address. Since that's a.) illegal, and b.) the kind of thing the Election Commission is supposed to police, some local Democrats raised a ruckus, as did the local chapter of the League of Women Voters—to no avail, so far.

• The newly constituted Election Commission, with McNutt aboard, did vote to fire Mackay, naming his deputy Scott Frith, a Republican, as interim administrator. Frith was considered a serious contender for the permanent position until Donila—who's been having a bit of a field day with the Election Commission—revealed both the existence and the subsequent shredding by Frith of a memo by Mackay noting allegations of sexual harassment against Frith. (The allegations, which were eventually ruled unfounded, apparently stemmed from encounters with some college interns in the office.) In what the politically observant would call interesting timing, the article about that memo ran on the front page of the News Sentinel on April 27, the day the Election Commission was to appoint the new administrator. Frith accused Mackay of writing and keeping the memo as "blackmail," for job security. Mackay denied it.

• On April 27, the Commission voted to hire Rodgers over Frith and another finalist. Meanwhile, Commission member Cameron Brooks had announced that he would be leaving the Commission to take a job out of state. There was an initial assumption that Mackay himself might be named back onto the Commission (the part-time Commission posts pay only a few thousand dollars, but they do qualify for health benefits). But on Monday, legislative Democrats instead named Dennis Francis, another former member of the Election Commission and a longtime friend of Mackay's. Mackay says he is still weighing his next move, jobwise: "I've got a number of different options I'm looking at." Of the elections office, he says only, "I think I've left it better than I found it."

Many local political observers say the same. Which raises an obvious question: Is all of this partisan jockeying really the best way to select the people charged with running elections and counting votes, the fundamental activities of a representative democracy?

"It is not uncommon," says Doug Chapin, director of election initiatives for the non-profit Pew Center on the States in Washington, D.C. "In some places there isn't even an appointment, there's just a straight-up election of an administrator."

Rob Richie, executive director of the electoral reform group FairVote, says the organization of election offices across the country is a patchwork of different systems: "It is sort of like this weird, decentralized mess." He adds, "Even with all the Florida post-2000 stuff, I don't think a lot of this changed many places."

Chapin says there's no consensus among political scientists on the best way to ensure the integrity or professionalism of elections officials. Some scholars believe that maintaining an explicit partisan divide, as Tennessee's election commissions do, makes sure that each side keeps the other honest. On the other hand, some states do everything they can to minimize political influence. In Wisconsin, for example, elections are overseen by a Government Accountability Board made up of retired judges appointed by a supermajority of the Legislature. "There is no standard accepted practice across the country," Chapin says.

Heagerty, chairman of the Knox County Election Commission, says that regardless of who's in charge of the office, its mandate remains the same: running elections and counting votes in a way that everyone will trust. "I want them to be handled in a professional manner," he says. "We provide a service."

As for the naked politics of the firing and hiring, Heagerty says, "The last person who held that job held that job purely and only because he was a Democrat. That's just the nature of the beast."

Rodgers, for his part, says he is accustomed to operating in a nonpartisan way within a political environment. He was a law clerk for federal District Court Judge James Jarvis for 23 years, until 2007. The federal court system, he notes, is rife with partisanship—both judges and U.S. attorneys are political appointees. "Yet once they got the job," he says, "I never saw decisions made by judges, by U.S. attorneys' offices—at least here locally—based on political motivations. And that's the way it should be." He promises to bring the same even-handedness to the elections office. "I am not coming over here with any political baggage, any political agenda, no personal agenda," he says.

Rodgers is something of a local insider, a graduate of Bearden High School and the University of Tennessee Law School who is on friendly terms with many in the political and business establishment. He was a fraternity brother of Knox County Clerk Foster Arnett, and is a longtime friend of influential developer Bob Talbott. But he has a bookish, earnest demeanor that in itself suggests why he found helping Jarvis research and write opinions more appealing than the combative practice of litigation.

He freely admits that he does not know much about election rules and regulations—he can remember only one elections case coming to Jarvis' court during his time there—but he says he's looking forward to learning. "I understand it's high stakes over here, and high risk," he says. "If there's a major mistake over here, I know whose head's on the chopping block."

For now, he has retained all eight full-time employees of his office, while he conducts a "top to bottom review." That includes Frith, who has stayed on as deputy. "I consider him a valuable asset," Rodgers says. "He's got essential information, he's been down here for two years, he knows what Greg did, he knows about the deadlines, the nuances of the law." (He politely declines comment on questions about McNutt's voting record, noting, "He's my boss." But he does say that Knox Countians should keep their voter registration address current: "I would encourage all citizens to do that.")

What Rodgers would really like to do, he says, once he gets his feet on the ground, is work on boosting local turnout—especially among the next generation of voters. "I couldn't wait until I could vote in my first presidential election, in 1972," he says. "Yet, too many [younger people] don't seem to want to get involved in the process."

If he finds a way to do that, he might earn his office a happier kind of headline.