Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: “Gerrymandered” district ballot errors likely to be investigated

November 4, 2022 6:03 am
Dr. Jason Martin, Democratic nominee for governor, addresses members of the media at a Wednesday press conference addressing the Davidson County voting issues. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Dr. Jason Martin, Democratic nominee for governor, addresses members of the media at a Wednesday press conference addressing the Davidson County voting issues. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Davidson County Election Office jacked the 2022 election ballots, leading Democrats to call for the ouster of Administrator Jeff Roberts. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Election Commission Chairman Jim Delanis, a Republican, said Thursday getting rid of Roberts is not part of his plan, and other commissioners agree.

“The focus has been on correcting the problem, not pointing fingers at who caused it or what caused it. But that’s gonna come next. Of course, we’re in the middle of an election cycle, and we’re just doing everything we can to make sure the problem is corrected and that we go forward to have a good election,” Delanis says.

The chairman notes he has “full confidence” in Roberts, adding he has “done a wonderful job” for a long time. Roberts’ job is not on the table, he says.

Commissioner AJ Starling, a Democrat, points out that erroneous ballots were caused by a “mistake” in the system, but he contends “nothing was malicious or intentional.”

Democratic Commissioner Tricia Herzfeld says a “full and detailed investigation” is needed and adds, “Until we know how this happened, we need to focus on fixing it and being sure people are able to vote.”

Mayor John Cooper declined to comment Thursday. But Metro Council Rules Committee Chair Kathleen Murphy called a special meeting for Friday (today) at 4:30 in the council chamber where Roberts is to make a presentation. Roberts did not respond to a phone call Thursday, but he told the Tennessee Lookout the problem was fixed by early Wednesday.

Sloppy gerrymandering of Davidson County is the fundamental problem. Most of our neighborhoods and precincts are in multiple congressional districts, which is just a nightmare for election administration.

– Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville

Between 215 and 230 Davidson County voters were given the wrong ballots during early voting, which ended Thursday, when they went to the polls, a story broken by the Associated Press that started an avalanche of criticism. 

Democrats blamed the Legislature’s Republican supermajority for splitting Davidson County into three gerrymandered congressional districts and the Davidson County Election Commission for fouling up voters’ ballots in congressional districts 5, 6 and 7.

According to Roberts, those voters won’t be allowed to go back and cast correct ballots, which means their votes won’t count.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie argues that the redistricting plan Republicans pushed through the General Assembly led to the erroneous ballots, which apparently were caused by Metro’s failure to mesh its geographic information system with state maps. In some cases, people on different sides of streets were placed in the same precincts instead of being split up as the new redistricting map required.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie of Nashville: Republican redistricting plan led to voting errors. (Photo: Sam Stockard)
House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie of Nashville: Republican redistricting plan led to voting errors. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Dixie, a Nashville Democrat whose constituent brought the problem to light, argues that “when you literally cut up a neighborhood and you can literally stand in one corner and be in three different districts depending on where your feet are,” then the fault originates with Republican lawmakers.

Predictably, House Speaker Cameron Sexton disagrees.

“The Democrats really know this is a local Davidson County Election Office issue. Trying to blame a constitutionally sound congressional map is just smoke and mirrors. Human error from the local election office inside their GIS department led to the unfortunate error in the  congressional (districts) and some state House districts. We have been told the locals have fixed the error and updated all their ballots. We will continue to monitor the situation closely,” Sexton says in a statement.

While Sexton and Dixie never agree on anything, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro also lays some of the blame at the feet of Republicans, calling it a “mess that never should have happened.”

“Sloppy gerrymandering of Davidson County is the fundamental problem. Most of our neighborhoods and precincts are in multiple congressional districts, which is just a nightmare for election administration,” Yarbro says. “Obviously, that’s no excuse for not getting it right. We owe voters an accurate and fair election.”

Not that Democrats are perfect, either. They had their own voter data snafu this summer that caused a rift between the state party and gubernatorial candidate Dr. Jason Martin when he sent out a mass text to 41,000 voters with bad precinct and polling information shortly before the August primary. Martin was so irritated he considered seeking a no-confidence vote in Chairman Hendrell Remus.

The Democrats really know this is a local Davidson County Election Office issue. Trying to blame a constitutionally sound congressional map is just smoke and mirrors.

– Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville

Ultimately, the blame was placed on the Democratic National Committee, which uploaded precincts for the state’s vote builder program but failed to correctly map some of the precincts involving voting convenience centers.

Everything appeared to be smoothed over at a Wednesday press conference where Democrats lambasted the Davidson County Election Office and supermajority Republicans, who pushed their plan to passage with hardly a word about Democrats’ proposal.

Deja vu all over again

Talk surfaced early this year about a legal challenge of the congressional redistricting plan, but nothing was done.

State Rep. Bo Mitchell says he thought a lawsuit was going to be filed at the time, and he points out this “debacle” could initiate one.

Like most Democrats, Mitchell believes the districts were gerrymandered to give Republicans an advantage in winning an eighth congressional district out of Tennessee’s nine seats. Davidson County had never been split up until this year.

He hopes the screw-up won’t affect any elections. “But if they’ve got a close election, they’ve got a problem,” he says.

As for the argument that 200 votes won’t affect the outcome, some readers might remember when former state Sen. Jim Tracy lost to Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais by 38 votes in the 2014 congressional primary. A recount failed to find Tracy enough ballots to push him to victory. 

Rep. Bo Mitchell, R-Nashville, at right with Sen. Jeff Yarbro. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Bo Mitchell, R-Nashville, at right with Sen. Jeff Yarbro. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Mitchell says he’s heard a person could stand in the parking lot of a Krispy Kreme on Thompson Lane and be in three in different congressional districts in less than 30 seconds. (Just don’t eat a dozen chocolate-covered doughnuts while you’re there.)

A gander at the map shows that could well be the case, a point where District 5, 6 and 7 converge.

Granted, Democrats were guilty of their own version of gerrymandering during the last 20 to 30 years. 

But when Republicans redrew the 5th Congressional District, the seat of longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, causing him to hightail it to retirement, they put together a new 5th that looks like T Rex running across the middle of the state, from Lewis County across eastern Williamson and southern Davidson to western Wilson, they took elections back to prehistoric times when GIS systems didn’t exist, much less work. 

“I warned that gerrymandering the congressional map would suppress and silence Nashville voters, and we’re getting an early taste of how seriously they will undermine Nashville’s voice,” Cooper says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s incompetence or malice; this election will be remembered for the mistreatment and disrespect of Nashville voters.”

In hindsight, Cooper might have been able to win a race against former Maury County Andy Ogles in the 5th. But he’s soon to be gone with the wind.

“Bang a gong.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s incompetence or malice; this election will be remembered for the mistreatment and disrespect of Nashville voters.

– Retiring U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-CD 5

Will it help?

Former Vice President Al Gore announced this week his endorsement for state Sen. Heidi Campbell in Tennessee 5th Congressional District race against Republican Andy Ogles.

Gore says he believes Campbell will continue the push for climate reforms in the Inflation Reduction Act while her opponent won’t.

“We’re finally seeing real progress from Congress in the fight against the climate crisis, but you and I both know much of Congress refuses to recognize the urgency of this threat,” Gore says in a statement. 

He points out Campbell is the only candidate in the 5th “pledging to move our nation toward a more sustainable future.”

Campbell has highlighted her backing for clean energy jobs such as the Ford electric vehicle plant and GM’s new battery facility, plus past work to stop flooding.

In contrast, Ogles has criticized the Inflation Reduction Act. But after staying quiet and preaching to the choir for most of the fall, Ogles increased his visibility in recent days, buying a cable TV ad and attending a rally in Franklin with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who answered most reporters’ questions for him.

The question is whether Gore’s backing will translate into more votes for Campbell. If the Tennessee native had carried his home state in 2000, he would have won the presidential election instead of being forced into a Florida tie that had to be broken by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Feeling a repeat?

Republican Gov. Bill Lee must be feeling pretty confident that he’ll beat Democratic challenger Dr. Jason Martin on Nov. 8.

Not only is the governor refusing to acknowledge his opponent, he has scheduled budget hearings for Nov. 9, 10, 17 and 18.

It’s expected to be business as usual as the governor’s cabinet reviews department budget proposals for fiscal 2023-24. They’ll be streamed live at www.tn.gov.

The late State Rep. Barbara Cooper during a 2022 event to honor here as the oldest member of the Tennessee General Assembly. (Photo: John Partipilo)
The late State Rep. Barbara Cooper during a 2022 event to honor her as the oldest member of the Tennessee General Assembly. (Photo: John Partipilo)

RIP Rep. Cooper

Visitation for Rep. Barbara Cooper, the state’s oldest legislator at age 93, is set for Friday (today) from 4-7 p.m. at St. Augustine Catholic Church on Kerr Avenue in Memphis. The funeral service is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Immaculate Conception Cathedral, 1695 Central Ave. in Memphis followed by burial at West Tennessee Veterans Cemetery, 4000 Forest Hill Irene Road.

So long, to the feisty Mrs. Cooper. I’ll miss getting run over by your scooter.

Stay home and prep for hearing

Magistrate Judge Alistair Newbern recently denied a request by Cade Cothren, the embattled former chief of staff for ex-House Speaker Glen Casada, for day trips to Alabama, according to the Tennessee Journal. Cothren, who is charged in a bribery and kickback indictment, apparently failed to say whether he asked for permission from probation and pretrial services officers.

Meanwhile, Cothren’s show-cause hearing for a subpoena by the Registry of Election Finance is set for Feb. 10 at the Metro Courthouse before Chancellor I’Ashea Myles.

Cade Cothren leaves the federal courthouse in Nashville following his arraignment on conspiracy charges. (Holly McCall)
Cade Cothren leaves the federal courthouse in Nashville following his arraignment on conspiracy charges. (Holly McCall)

The Registry board wants Casada to answer questions about a political action committee he secretly ran after girlfriend formed it for him to aid the campaign of state Rep. Todd Warner in his campaign against incumbent Rep. Rick Tillis, who was a political enemy of Casada and lost in the primary.

Cothren has accused the Registry board of trying to make political points by forcing him to testify. He claimed the Fifth but not in person.

After his arraignment in federal court, Cothren said the truth will be known. Maybe he will enlighten us some day.



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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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