Hargett remains Secretary of State despite modicum of Democratic opposition

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett testifies before the U.S. Senate Rules Committee on Absentee Voting. (Screenshot of Senate Rules Committee.)
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett testifies before the U.S. Senate Rules Committee on Absentee Voting in July 2020. (Screenshot of Senate Rules Committee.)

The General Assembly overwhelmingly re-elected Secretary of State Tre Hargett to the constitutional office, despite opposition from some Democrats, and elevated former legislator Jason Mumpower to the post of Tennessee Comptroller, replacing the retiring Justin Wilson.

Twelve Democrats out of 132 members in the 112th General Assembly voted against Hargett’s re-election Wednesday at the War Memorial Auditorium in what is typically a ceremonial vote.

The party was split and did not put up an opponent to run against him, a shortcoming that caught the ire of Democratic state Rep. John Ray Clemmons. He raised the objection to Hargett’s nomination during a joint session between the House and Senate, forcing a roll call vote to appoint Hargett to another four-year term.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons (Photo: John Ray for Tennessee website)
Rep. John Ray Clemmons (Photo: John Ray for Tennessee website)

“We had a qualified nominee, but our House caucus, after much debate, voted not to put forth a nominee to challenge Tre Hargett. I strongly disagree with this decision for many reasons,” said Clemmons, who sought the House Democratic Caucus chairmanship in December but placed behind Rep. Vincent Dixie in the race.

Clemmons contended Hargett is “singularly responsible for the purging of thousands of voters,” in addition to limitations on voting rights and registration and for refusing to allow the restoration of former felons’ voting rights. 

Hargett pushed 2019 legislation that punished groups that turn in large numbers of voter registration forms with omitted or incorrect information, ostensibly to go after those that pay people to register voters. Punishment would have included civil and criminal penalties. 

The move came after a voter registration group turned in thousands of applications at the Shelby County Election Office just before the deadline for the 2018 election. 

Gov. Bill Lee signed the bill into law, but it was put on hold by a federal court because of unconstitutional provisions. The legislature passed a watered-down version in 2020 after removing sections that ran afoul of the federal judge.

Hargett also opposed efforts in 2020 to allow voters afraid of COVID-19 to cast absentee ballots by mail. Ultimately, the state switched its position, and a Davidson County chancellor required the Division of Elections to notify local election offices to post instructions enabling people with underlying health conditions and their caretakers to vote absentee, even if they were under age 60 or didn’t meet other requirements.

In addition, Hargett and Division of Elections Coordinator Mark Goins lobbied against several Democratic-sponsored bills designed to increase voter turnout, such as a no-fault absentee voting option for every eligible voter in a pandemic, as well as voter-verified paper ballots, automatic voter registration and any change to the voter registration date, which is as far away from an election date as federal law allows, according to a Senate Democratic spokesman.

After being sworn in, Hargett told legislators his “cup runneth over.”

“I’m so grateful to be able to serve alongside you, and regardless of what your political ideology is, each and every one of you has my respect and know that I have the opportunity that I have been given to serve with you and help you be the best representative you can be and the best senator you can be so our state can be the absolute best state it can be,” Hargett said.

Newly-elected Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower. (Photo: Tennessee Office of the Comptroller)
Newly-elected Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower. (Photo: Tennessee Office of the Comptroller)

Hargett met informally with House Minority Leader Karen Camper and a handful of Democrats immediately after the joint session. But he declined comment to the Tennessee Lookout when asked about the abstentions to his re-election.

State Rep. Tim Rudd, who sponsored the voter registration bills for Hargett, said Wednesday the reforms helped stop problems that other states experienced in the 2020 election.

“We had fair and honest elections. We had a fair and honest voter registration process, and that’s due to (Hargett’s) leadership, and I want to commend him for it,” said Rudd, a Murfreesboro Republican.

Democratic leaders abstained from voting for Hargett, but several members did support his re-election, including Shelby County Democratic Reps. Torrey Harris, Joe Towns, Antonio Parkinson, Dwayne Thompson and London Lamar.

Thompson, a Cordova Democrat, said he opted to vote for Hargett because the House Democratic Caucus was “divided.”

“If we had fully planned this out and made the decision to be unified on this, I would probably have abstained on it. But I’m not going to suffer consequences to support the divided caucus,” Thompson said.

Lamar, a Memphis Democrat, said because the Democratic Caucus failed to put up a candidate, it was important to start the 2021 session building a good relationship with the Secretary of State’s Office.

“If I have the opportunity to work with Secretary Hargett to continue to push laws that expand voting rights that are going to allow people to have easier access to voting, to make sure that process is transparent, I think this is one of the ways to show I’m willing to work with Tre and his administration to get that done,” Lamar said.

Harris, a first-term representative from Memphis, said some disagreements with Hargett are connected to voting and voting rights, but he noted the Secretary of State’s Office has numerous other responsibilities.

“It’s our job as legislators to make the changes needed and make sure that we hold him and the rest of state government accountable,” to make sure “harmful bills don’t pass,” Harris said.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, was among those who abstained from supporting Hargett. 

“I think everybody paying any attention at all knows that democracy is at a crisis point in our country. During his tenure, the number of Tennesseans registering and the turnout of Tennesseans relative to the rest of the country has been plummeting,” Yarbro said, “and that is impossible to disconnect from the policies and operations of Secretary Hargett’s tenure.”

Hargett’s office was “relentless,” Yarbro said, in pursuing litigation to back the administration of President Donald Trump’s challenge of voting rights nationwide instead of trying to increase the number of registered voters.

Hargett has defended his efforts to bolster voter turnout with a statewide push that included registration drives on college campuses. 

More than 68% of voters, 3,045,401 people, cast ballots in the Nov. 3 election, setting a state record, easily surpassing the previous record of 2.6 million in 2008, according to Hargett’s Office, which contended state voters had confidence in state safety precautions put in place at local polling places.

In advance of the vote, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Dixie said the caucus didn’t have a “viable candidate” it could put up on short notice. The caucus discussed the matter during a December caucus meeting when it selected Dixie but didn’t reach a decision then.

“It was probably just a lack of proper planning to get someone in there that we could run a real campaign that somebody could really win. But we will voice our displeasure with our vote,” Dixie said.

The Nashville Democrat said he hopes Hargett is aware of Democrats’ dissatisfaction and they can start to “work collaboratively to make better laws” because of some of the restrictions pushed by the secretary of state to make voter registration more difficult.

The Legislature selected Mumpower, who was second in command to Justin Wilson for several years after serving in the House. Mumpower lost a bid to become House Speaker in 2009 when now-former state Rep. Kent Williams forged an agreement with Democrats and won the office by one vote when the chamber was split nearly 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.

The Legislature also re-elected David Lillard as state treasurer.