Early on the evening of Nov. 4, 2008, the big-screen TVs in the Sunsphere declared that Barack Obama would be the next occupant of the White House. Jubilant Knox County Democrats started planning their inauguration outfits and partied on, oblivious to the Republican tsunami rolling inexorably toward a house much closer to home.
By the time election night was over, it was Republicans in the legislative delegation who were celebrating. Not only had they solidified their margin in the state Senate, but also they had won a one-vote majority in the state House of Representatives, giving them control of both houses in the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction. One of the things they were most excited about was taking control of the state and county election commissions, which they had long suspected had been used by Democrats to influence (if not steal) elections.
When Martin Luther King Jr. preached about the arc of the moral universe being long, but bending toward justice, he was talking about the right to vote. Democracy doesn't work right when it's compromised. In Tennessee, the two major political parties are the custodians of the voting process, and whichever party happens to be in power gets to dictate where, when, and how that process is organized. Theoretically, Republicans and Democrats create checks and balances resulting in free and fair elections. Many, particularly independents (the fastest-growing segment of the voting population) and minority parties (like the Green Party, which had to sue to get on the ballot this year) would disagree.
It's an increasingly messy business. And this year has been one of the messiest yet, with local Democrats toting up a long list of grievances, going back to the 2011 ouster of Democrat Greg Mackay as election administrator.
The administrator of elections job, with its six-figure salary, is one of the juiciest political plums in the county. But Cliff Rodgers, who has held the position for a year, is catching an increasing amount of heat with the approach of the critical 2012 contests, which are complicated by the requirements of the new voter ID law (which Democrats consider voter suppression), sudden precinct changes (which Democrats consider voter suppression), and a residency controversy that ended with the courts tossing a Democratic candidate out of the county. Although the Knox County Election Commission has always generated controversy, this appears to be a year of intensified fear and loathing.
There is unhappiness among North Knoxvillians who vote at Belle Morris Elementary School over Rodgers' decision to close down their polling place. Located in the heart of a densely packed cluster of older neighborhoods, the big brick school at the corner of Washington Pike and Whittle Springs Road becomes 16-South on Election Day and has been a bellwether ward for Democrats for more than 60 years. It is the largest Democratic ward in the city—and the belief that if Democrats don't win there, they're not going to get elected is a foundational principle of Election Night in Knoxville.
Democrat Randy Tyree, who was elected mayor in 1976 in a historic upset over Republican Kyle Testerman, says his margin at Belle Morris offset Testerman's numbers in Sequoyah Hills. In 1990, Democrat Madeline Rogero upset incumbent Republican Jess Cawood for the 2nd District County Commission seat. Belle Morris was pivotal to her victory, and, it could be argued, laid the foundation for her to become the first woman elected mayor of Knoxville.
Six days before early voting began on July 13, 16-S voters started getting new voter's registration cards telling them to report to the Larry G. Cox Recreation Center—16-North—on Aug. 2 to cast their primary ballots. The election commission had approved Rodgers' recommendation to close down 16-S at an 8 a.m. meeting, which has become the preferred time for the election commission to meet. Citizens rarely attend at this hour, and neither do media. There was no coverage of this vote, and 16-S voters were blindsided by the news. Rodgers says he decided to make the change after getting a complaint that Belle Morris is not handicapped accessible.
"Back in March, I got a complaint from a voter, a lady in a wheelchair or on a walker, I'm not sure which, who complained about where she had to enter the building. There's a big ramp at one end, and you have to walk a long way. The entrance near the voting area doesn't have a ramp and is inconvenient to parking," Rodgers says, explaining that he inspected the building and is sensitive to such issues because he fell down a stairwell while voting at Pond Gap Elementary School when he was recuperating from knee surgery. The recreation center, which is less than a mile away (and in fact became a polling place to relieve overcrowding at Belle Morris), is all on one floor and should serve the purpose, he says. And even if problems emerge at 16-North, Belle Morris won't be a polling place anymore.
"It's just not fair," Rodgers says.
The election commission voted on the recommendation at its March 26 meeting. Election commission member and Democrat Dennis Francis, an attorney, had a trial that morning and didn't attend. The other Democrat, Cassandra McGee Stuart, voted to approve the closing, joining Republicans Chris Heagerty, Bob Bowman, and Rob McNutt.
Democrat Mark Harmon, a former county commissioner who lives in North Hills, isn't buying Rodgers' explanation.
"I smell politics," he says. "This is one of the better Democratic boxes in what is going to be a hotly contested state House race, and I'm just astounded that this decision has been made with no notice or public input. Belle Morris is heavily used, and lines are going to be so much longer at the Larry Cox Center with the two 16th District polling places combined. The real intent is to make life difficult for voters and for Democrats in particular."
Harmon says the Belle Morris ramp is adequate and that the situation at Pond Gap is worse, so he wonders why it's not also being closed down.
Another North Hills resident, Steve Eldridge, has worked as a registrar and an officer of elections at Belle Morris and says the school meets state standards for accessibility. In an e-mail to his neighbors, he said election workers who have read the election commission handbook know that voting machines are portable and designed to be taken to the parking lot if that's as far as the voter can get.
"There is no parking at the Larry Cox Center and to accommodate the large number of voters it will be a nightmare and discourage voters from voting. Belle Morris has plenty of parking areas around the school. This action will disenfranchise many voters, which may or may not have been the intention to begin with. Frankly, I smell a rat, and a large one at that!"
There's also grumbling in heavily Republican South Knoxville, and it's not coming from Democrats. An early voting site at Chapman Highway and Moody Avenue was moved to the Optimist Club at Gary Underwood Park for the March elections and has been moved again to South-Doyle Middle School for the Aug. 2 election.
The most vocal southside critic is Carson Dailey, a conservative Republican who is treasurer of the South-Doyle Neighborhood Association.
"You need a GPS to find the Optimist Club, and a lot of people are going to go all the way out there and find a sign telling them to go to the middle school," he says. "I don't like it and I've heard a lot of negative comments about the election commission."
"It ran smooth when Greg Mackay was there," Dailey said. "I think there needs to be a Republican in there, but they need to quit playing musical chairs with us."
Rodgers says Dailey hasn't called him, so it's hard to address his complaints. He says the Chapman Highway location was an old video store, which, while convenient, is no longer usable because the roof leaks and the landlord isn't inclined to fix it. Since he has no budget for rent or repairs, Rodgers says he is limited to locating polling places in public buildings, and has spent a great deal of time looking for suitable spaces in South Knoxville.
Dennis Francis was the guest speaker at the July meeting of the 1st District Democratic Club, and the first thing he said to them was that he was there as a Democrat, not as a Knox County election commissioner. Then he proceeded to tell them what he thinks of the election commission.
"What's the Republican definition of voter fraud? A Democrat voting," he said, alluding to the spate of GOP-sponsored voter ID laws passed since 2008, which Democrats think suppress votes from the elderly or poor who may not have state-issued IDs.
"We're working overtime to keep people off the ballot," he said, referring to Democrat Shelley Breeding's losing battle to run for a legislative seat in Knox County. Her property straddles the Knox/Anderson county line and the state court of appeals upheld a chancery court declaratory judgment that she is not a Knox County resident because Anderson County collects her property taxes.
"The election commission seems to be run by (state election coordinator) Mark Goins," said Francis, who has represented election commissions in several East Tennessee counties in legal matters. He chaired the commission from 1991 to 1998 when Democrats were in charge, but he's obviously enjoying it a lot less this time around as he serves out the term left by labor organizer Cameron Brooks, who moved to Washington, D.C., last year. Francis says he does not want another term.
He accuses Goins, a former Republican state representative from LaFollette who holds a law degree from Pat Robertson's Regent University, of improperly interfering in the issue of Breeding's eligibility by instructing the election commission to ask for a declaratory judgment instead of taking a vote.
"I decided when we didn't vote on Shelley Breeding that there was no point in my staying," Francis says. "I will not seek reappointment. What's the point? We're supposed to follow the law. The law is not what Mark Goins says it is, it's what the state of Tennessee says it is."
Complaints about the election commission are a staple of Knox County politics. It used to be mostly Republicans doing the criticizing, and sometimes the commission handed them legitimate issues with snafus like losing count of the early vote totals in the 1996 city/county unification referendum. The complaints dwindled significantly after Democrat Greg Mackay became administrator of elections in 2003. A former election commissioner, his management style drew kudos from both parties. In 2009, after Republicans took control, election workers from both parties lobbied for him to keep his job. Mackay's 2011 dismissal by the Republican majority drew universal disapproval from Democrats and a fair amount of criticism from Republicans, too.
On Election Night, 2008, Mackay probably had more to lose than any Knoxville Democrat. But he says he was too busy to pay much attention to what was going on beyond the county line until he was alerted to trouble by his friend, Roane County Administrator of Elections Tony Brown, who is also a Democrat. He sounded grim.
"Tony called and told me what was happening," Mackay says. "He said the Democrats are beat. I didn't really have time to study the situation, but I knew it wasn't good news for me. I could see what was coming."
So could Republican legislators like then-Representative (now Senator) Stacey Campfield, who was beside himself with joy and even more difficult to follow than usual, evidence of which was writ large on his blog at 1:30 a.m. the following morning:
"…I had to count it over and over. 50? Yes, it equals 50. 50? Really? No. There must be a mistake. 50? I called Mumpower and he said it looked good. 50? Could the torcher [sic] be over? 50? is that 50? Something will change. I must have forgotten some race. 50?! They will steal one late somewhere.50? 50? 50! ....
"It starts to settle in. Yes. 50! We have it. If we stick together, majority, leadership, change. I am exhausted but I can't sleep. The hard cores were all calling each other. 50! We made it! We are there! We were all so happy we were just giggling, talking about all the bills we are going to finally pass. 50! I didn't know to laugh or cry I was so happy. I probably did both. 50!"
Campfield's frabjous joy was short-lived. Republicans didn't stick together and the Democrats peeled off Carter County Republican Kent Williams and voted him in as speaker, depriving the GOP of its one-vote majority and Campfield's pal Jason Mumpower of the speaker's gavel, even though he had already picked his staff and his office and hired a photographer to record the moment. Republicans were enraged and discombobulated, as were their Knox County brethren the following spring when Republican Election Commissioner Paul Crilly joined the Democrats and voted to retain Mackay as election administrator. Republican activists grumbled about being deprived of the spoils of victory.
Tracing the seeds of the mistrust between the two parties that control the state's 95 county election commissions isn't easy. Victor Ashe, a student of state politics who was elected to the General Assembly in 1968, says the fight goes back to a power struggle in the state Senate in 1964 when Gov. Frank Clement had a handpicked candidate for lieutenant governor. But Clement didn't get to choose. The 33-member Senate elects a lieutenant governor/speaker from among its ranks. The vote was stalemated at 16/16 after one Democrat disappeared and a renegade faction chose to push back against Clement and increase their numbers by wooing Republicans with a way to control East Tennessee's election commissions. After much finagling, the truant Democrat returned, the deal got done, and state election law got rewritten to give control of the county election commissions to the party of the gubernatorial candidate who carried that county, which worked out nicely for East Tennessee Republicans. (Back then, there was hardly any other kind.)
House Republicans captured the majority the year Ashe got there, but the Democrats took it right back in 1970. Future felon Ray Blanton was elected governor in 1974, and in 1977, the Democrats decided it was time to take back the election commissions, so they introduced a bill calling for the majority of seats on the state and local election commissions, along with the state's constitutional offices, to be controlled by the majority party in the General Assembly. Later, it was keyed to a House majority.
Republicans attempted a walkout when the vote was called. Democrats ordered the sergeants-at-arms to lock the chamber's doors and only one Republican escaped. The bill passed 63-0 and House Minority Leader Tom Jensen of Knoxville accused the Democrats of laying the groundwork to steal elections, predicting that "[t]he citizens of this state will rise up and you'll hear from them."
Jensen was long gone from politics before the pendulum would swing the Republicans' way, but swing it has.
Much of the election commission drama over the past decade has involved Greg Mackay, whose family moved from Ohio to Knoxville when his father went to work at Webb School, where he became headmaster. One of his perks was free tuition for his children, and Mackay graduated in 1972, a classmate of Jimmy Haslam. He got a degree in political science at the University of Tennessee, worked in the family souvenir business selling big foam fingers, and later sold real estate and was an election commissioner from 1989-1998.
Meanwhile, the position of election administrator had come to be considered an African American woman's job. The tradition was so entrenched by the time Pat Crippins retired in 2003 that when Mackay applied, hardly anybody thought he had a chance of being appointed because of his race and gender.
But by almost all accounts, Mackay knocked it out of the park during the selection process, and Election Commissioner Anne Woodle—a Democrat, a former school-board member, and the director of the Children's Hospital Rehabilitation Center—nominated him despite heavy pressure to do otherwise. Woodle, who has been involved in issues of racial justice most of her life, paid a price for bucking her party's leadership and was not reappointed to serve another term, but she says she has never second-guessed her decision.
"I have never had a moment's regret over that vote," Woodle says. "Greg exceeded our expectations and took us to another level. I am passionate about the right to vote, and I am as passionate about my choice today as I was then. There have been an awful lot of people I've stuck my neck out for that, as time went by, I've realized I was kind of foolish. Greg was not one of those. I said at the time that five years from now it's not going to matter who was on the election commission, but who the administrator is makes a huge difference. So in that sense, it was an easy decision. It was much more painful to me to lose friendships than not to be reappointed."
Republican Paul Crilly was appointed to the election commission in 2001, and served until 2011. He voted for Mackay in 2003 and 2009. A professor of electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee, he taught a study-abroad course in London this summer and will report to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy to teach a course in August. He holds three patents, has numerous teaching awards, and probably saved an election when a voting machine popped a metal rod and started to melt down. Crilly was able to diagnose the problem and retrieve the memory chip. Later, he worked with the manufacturer to redesign the machine.
He got interested in the election commission after the 1996 unification vote controversy, and started attending meetings and demanding assurances that vote counts were accurate.
"I thought the whole thing was much more partisan then, and I thought there was something funny going on with the machines. After being on the election commission and talking with the technicians, I had a lot more confidence," he says.
Crilly says he didn't know he wasn't going to be reappointed until he read it in the newspaper. When he found out it was because he had voted for Mackay in 2009, he probably didn't help his case when he called several legislators and told them, "If you want me to promise to vote for a Republican administrator, I can't. I'll vote for the best person."
"I told one legislator that the election commission should not be political. It should be where we do things in a fair way. Some of these galoots in the Knox County Republican Party, I just kind of wonder about. I'm tired of our people being on the front page of the paper, and I think they treated Greg in a very harsh manner. Ran roughshod over him just because they could."
He says he misses the people he worked with as a commissioner, but being a civilian has its benefits.
"I guess I feel like I'm a free man, so I can express my opinions. I'm a limited-government, Reagan Republican. But whoever gets elected, I want it to be fairly done and I thought Greg did that."
Crilly said he would have seriously considered Rodgers, if he'd applied in 2009, and that he cast his vote for the most qualified person.
His replacement was Rob McNutt, a personal friend of legislators Steve Hall and Stacey Campfield who admitted violating state election law on seven occasions by voting in a precinct where he no longer lived. He claimed it was an accident, whereupon Democrats dubbed him "McFelon." The commission's 8 a.m. meeting time is a courtesy to McNutt, who reports to his truck-driving job at 9 a.m. He joined fellow Republicans Chris Heagerty and Bob Bowman and voted to terminate Mackay.
McNutt's voting record did not come to light until the legislative delegation selected him to serve on the election commission. Mackay says he referred a handful of cases to the attorney general's office for investigation during the years he was administrator, but they were dropped when it was found that there was no intent to defraud. Several involved people with dementia who showed up at the polls on election day having forgotten that they'd already voted early. John Gill, special counsel to the Knox County Attorney General, confirmed that no voter fraud cases have been prosecuted in Knox County, at least in recent years.
Like Dennis Francis, Shelley Breeding's lawyer Billy Stokes is unhappy about the way the election commission handled her case.
"They shirked their responsibility to the citizens. They need to put their big-boy pants on and do the job they were appointed to do," says Stokes, a former GOP party chair who served in the Sundquist administration. "They should have ruled whether she was eligible or not before we went to court instead of passing on it at the request of [state election coordinator] Mark Goins, who got too involved in a local issue. It's become too partisan at the state level, and I don't want to see that happen here. I always thought Greg Mackay was easy to get along with and always professional."
Is he getting much criticism from his fellow Republicans for aggressively representing Breeding?
"Only from people that don't matter—a couple of goofy bloggers and some whiners around town."
On June 25, Rodgers announced that the voter's registration cards of Breeding, her husband, and seven of their neighbors in Elizabeth Downs subdivision had been transferred to Anderson County, as per the state Court of Appeals ruling that the county line runs through her property, but her bedroom lies in Anderson County. Still hanging are questions regarding where neighborhood children will be allowed to attend school.
Meanwhile, Breeding stays busy with her law practice, and has recently picked up a new client: West Tennessean John Bragorgos, who is suing Mark Goins in federal court for directing the Fayette County Election Commission not to allow his name to be placed on the ballot as an independent candidate for the state House because of residency questions.