Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Lawmakers take bipartisan poke at potential election audit

October 15, 2021 5:01 am
Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Republican and Democratic lawmakers who seldom agree on anything are questioning a likely move by the coordinator of elections to push legislation for an audit of the state’s elections.

Changing state law at the whims of those still peeved at elections in other states where Trump lost to Biden is a bad move, some would say.

Nevertheless, Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins said this week he believes the Legislature will consider a state election audit. Goins noted he and Secretary of State Tre Hargett  talked with lawmakers earlier this year about improving audit procedures.

“You do want people to have confidence in the election,” Goins said. Yet he acknowledged that questions remain about elections in Arizona and Georgia, even after those states conducted full-blown audits. Audits were done in the wake of President Joe Biden’s win over President Donald Trump in the battleground states where the former president continues to claim he won.

“But at the end of the day, if this gives a few more people confidence, I think it’s warranted,” Goins said.

He made the statement even though Tennessee officials, including his boss, claim the state had the cleanest election in the nation. 

Speaking after a meeting in which the State Election Commission sparred with a Williamson County group with designs on preserving the integrity of elections, Goins said he believes fewer than 20 ballots cast in 2020 could hold even the potential for fraud.

That wouldn’t come close to overturning Trump’s win here over Biden or any other election, for that matter. It wouldn’t have flipped a 38-vote loss by former state Sen. Jim Tracy to Congressman Scott DesJarlais in 2014, when Tracy failed to beat the bushes in the final week of campaigning.

Putting the past aside, though, state Rep. Tim Rudd, a Murfreesboro Republican who carries most of the election coordinator’s election initiatives, doesn’t support a legislative move for audits. Neither does House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie of Nashville.

In a rare case of bipartisan agreement, Democratic House Caucus Chair Rep. Vincent Dixie and GOP Rep. Tim Rudd agree there is no need for legislation to create election audits.”To audit the whole system when nothing’s been proven to be wrong or showed any evidence of wrongdoing, I can’t justify that,” said Rudd.

Rudd said this week he would be glad to consider random audits or “spot” audits across the state. The institution of an audit would require a change in state law.

“But to audit the whole system when nothing’s been proven to be wrong or showed any evidence of wrongdoing, I can’t justify that,” Rudd said.

Rudd wasn’t certain but estimated it would cost millions of dollars to have every election commission in the state audit their elections and for the state to conduct a forensic audit. Williamson County Voters for Election Integrity, which complained about irregularities in their own election without providing proof, wants a “risk-level” audit or a forensic audit, and they said that repeatedly at their Monday meeting with the State Election Commission.

In an interview afterward, Dixie made light of potential legislation for a statewide audit.

“I find that interesting because we had the governor (and the secretary of state) say we had the most secure election process … in the United States,” Dixie said. “Now … you’re questioning whether Trump won Tennessee? Did we have any instances of fraud here in Tennessee that was material? I question what is the motive behind doing these things. Is it just for political pandering?”

If Goins could show documentation of “massive fraud” that would call for an audit, Dixie said he could understand the need. Otherwise, not.

The Secretary of State’s Office declined to respond this week to follow-up questions from Tennessee Lookout. But Goins could be growing weary of hearing from the Williamson County group, which also has a statewide moniker, whose members are traversing the state groaning about the loopholes and potential for fraud in Tennessee elections. 

Bless their hearts, they are a dogged group. And they could be getting into the heads of Rudd and Goins.

Conceding the group could have some valid points, Rudd said the Legislature could look at voting machines and paper trail backups in 2022.

Rep. Vincent Dixie, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Vincent Dixie, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, says GOP lawmakers are guilty of political pandering. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Yet even though Goins corrected the group on several points during the presentation this week, he acknowledged a stronger audit could be beneficial.

Now . . . you're questioning whether Trump won Tennessee? Did we have instances of fraud here in Tennessee that was material? Is it just for political pandering?

– Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville

Goins, however, said legislation isn’t needed to require a paper trail for ballots because all of the state’s voting machine vendors are going to paper ballot backups.

Rudd added that Hargett prefers having different types of voting machines because the variety makes it harder for anyone to manipulate the system.

Asked if that’s an admission the system could be hacked, Rudd said, “I don’t think there’s any system you could use that’s going to be foolproof if someone’s determined to do something. Chances are they’ll get caught. There’s no evidence that Tennessee’s had any voter tampering.”

Rudd contends a ruling by Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle could have enabled voter fraud by mass absentee balloting. He sponsored legislation, with help from Goins’ office, to remove Lyle from office before it ran into hurdles from the legal and business community and more thoughtful lawmakers.

Forget the fact that states across the nation use mass mail-in ballots without problems.

It is interesting, though, to see Rudd and Dixie agree on one thing: Tennessee elections work. After all, they both won.

Farewell Jim Coley

Republican state Rep. Jim Coley expired twice on the table in 2017 when he became gravely ill. He rebounded, worked on his health and won re-election, campaigning in the delta heat for another term representing House District 97 in the Bartlett area. 

Just a year after stepping away from the General Assembly, Coley really did die this week at age 70, sending the Legislature into a state of shock and mourning. Services are supposed to be Monday.

Former Rep. Jim Coley, who died earlier this week. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Former Rep. Jim Coley, who died earlier this week. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

In a chamber where the divide is deep and wide between Republicans and Democrats, Coley was a voice of moderation.

To be sure, he voted pro-life and he supported legislation to turn back gay marriage. But the retired teacher also backed medical cannabis, opposed the governor’s vouchers for private education, and he felt Republican Rep. David Byrd should resign amid allegations of sexual misconduct with the high school basketball girls he coached in the 1980s.

Coley worked for stronger laws against human trafficking, helping the state achieve the nation’s highest score for bolstering child trafficking laws on the 2018 Protected Innocence Challenge report.

In addition, he backed stronger protection for disabled citizens and domestic violence victims. He taught with Ashley Scott at Bolton High School in 2006 when her husband beat her to death on Thanksgiving Day, and he wanted to try to stop similar tragedies from happening again.

When Coley was diagnosed with dementia in 2018, he opted to finish his final term and go out with class. When the pandemic hit in 2020, he was especially worried.

Yet he remained upbeat and philosophical. During conversations, he often described seeing the Beatles in 1966 for about $3 and talked about his plans to see Paul McCartney play in New Orleans for a much higher price. 

One of Coley’s favorite songs was “Blackbird,” and he liked to talk about how it was a civil rights song, which gave it special meaning. He admitted his version wasn’t nearly as refined as McCartney’s. Whose is?

But even if he couldn’t play the guitar like Sir Paul, I’d like to think somewhere in the heavens, Jim Coley took these broken wings and learned to fly.

“All your life you were only waiting for this moment to be free.”

Let’s have some meetings

Gov. Bill Lee unveiled plans last week to gather public input and hold meetings – a lot of meetings – to rejigger Tennessee’s Basic Education Program, the funding formula for the state’s K-12 schools.

Just days later, the Department of Education came out with a plan to enlist 18 committees to study the funding mechanism. No doubt, they’ll be meeting ad nauseum, with the usual congratulatory school board meeting salutations, “Friends, Romans and countrymen. …”

But considering only a handful of people in the state understand the formula, how are they gonna dig down into the meat of this problem and come up with anything that covers every facet of schools and make rural and urban school systems – with completely different sets of kids – happy? 

Democrats say the state needs to get out of the cellar. Republicans say we don’t need to throw money at education.  

Only a handful of people in the state understand the BEP formula. Given that rural and urban school systems face completely different issues, with Tennessee’s Department of Education be able to satisfy everyone in the revaluation process?

BEP, of course, has already seen a challenge from rural schools that wanted a bigger slice of the pie. They won. But since then, the state’s biggest school systems, led by Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, sued the state, saying funding is inadequate to educate children, especially low-income kids and others with serious challenges. 

With that case going before the Tennessee Supreme Court, it’ll be interesting to see whether the court puts off arguments, or at least whether Attorney General Herbert Slatery requests postponement until BEP is reformed. 

Any decision the court makes could be rendered moot, based on the outcome of this exercise. Or, the state could wind up back in court if school districts think the next funding mechanism stinks too.

More than likely, Gov. Lee already has a pretty good idea of what he wants to see in the formula. Whether his ultimate proposal will push Tennessee out of the bottom of national education funding ranks will be interesting to see. 

But anything added by this hoard of subcommittees likely will be window dressing. Don’t get too excited.

Former Gov. Bill Haslam went through a similar exercise, with few results.

Another Happy Valley?

You’ve seen the Penn State “white out” football games on TV. There’s hardly a speck visible in the crowd amid white shirts and white pom poms designed to intimidate visiting teams.

Well, one smart-aleck onlooker called the VP Mike Pence luncheon at Gov. Lee’s mansion this week a “white out.” Unless they’re hidden, we don’t see one Black person at the table, headed by Gov. Lee and his wife, Maria. Only a bunch of rich white men and only three women.

Gov. Bill Lee and First Lady Maria Lee greet Vice President Mike Pence Dec. 4 in Memphis at an event to discuss distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)
Gov. Bill Lee and First Lady Maria Lee greet Vice President Mike Pence Dec. 4 in Memphis at an event to discuss distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

Not to cast aspersions, but this seems to be more of a country club atmosphere than, say, teeing it up at Ted Rhodes Golf Course in Nashville (for the uninitiated, Ted Rhodes was a great Black golf pioneer from Nashville, and he probably wouldn’t have been invited).

Go to the Tennessee Journal at https://onthehill.tnjournal.net to see if you could get into this party.

Turning down Shelby

The Tennessee Board of Equalization voted this week to reject a request by Shelby County Property Assessor Melvin Burgess for a two-year property reappraisal process rather than a four-year cycle.

Burgess’ request would have increased relief payments to poor people in Shelby County but cut payments to corporations, which still would have benefited from lower property tax rates through equalization. State law prohibits automatic property tax increases following reappraisals that increase property values.

The Shelby County Commission approved the process, but according to those who follow the property appraisal world, mayors in Shelby’s outlying cities lobbied the Board of Equalization to kill the plan. 

The vote prevented reductions in tax relief payments for the elderly and low-income property owners, which are being cut by 15% annually. Corporations, meanwhile, received a 15% decrease on their assessed property values, according to experts.

Some are calling it a “reverse Robin Hood.”

Board of Equalization members include the state’s three constitutional officers, commissioner of revenue, Deputy to the Governor Lang Wiseman, former Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir and former Montgomery County Property Assessor Betty Burchett.

What did he say?

In the quest for a special session on COVID-19 issues, especially a chance to stick one in the eye of President Joe Biden over his business vaccine mandate, state Rep. Bruce Griffey this week wrote a letter to colleagues referring to vaccine supporters in the Legislature as “medical Nazis” and saying Hitler, Mao, Stalin and other communist oppressors are likely smiling in their graves. If only we were certain Hitler is dead.

Kansas' album "Point of Know Return" featured the hit song "Dust in the Wind," as opposed to the Rep. John Ray Clemmons phrase, "fart in the wind." (Photo: Alamy)
Kansas’ album “Point of Know Return” featured the hit song “Dust in the Wind,” as opposed to the Rep. John Ray Clemmons phrase, “fart in the wind.” (Photo: Alamy)

The Paris Republican also took a poke at Rep. John Ray Clemmons, without naming him, for his tweets noting that Republicans want to give people choice on vaccines but none on abortion.

Asked about the letter, Clemmons didn’t reply before I filed a story this week. But he later sent a text saying Griffey’s comment was, “Like a fart in the wind.”

That’s not quite as poetic as Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind.” But it still has a certain ring to it. “Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea, all we do crumble to the ground though we refuse to see.”

Ol’ Blue, we’re gonna miss you, man.

 

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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