House leader pushes resolution to move county elections to November

Some worry about long ballots and effort to consolidate power

By: - January 17, 2023 6:02 am
House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland (Photo: John Partipilo)

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland (Photo: John Partipilo)

A move is afoot for a constitutional amendment shifting Tennessee’s judicial and county elections to November from August, a situation that some fear is an effort to further consolidate power and could confuse voters.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, is sponsoring the resolution that would change the state’s Constitution and shift elections for judicial and civil officers from the first Thursday in August to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Such a change would combine those elections for judges and county officials with the usual slate of elections for state and federal offices.

Lamberth said his constitutional amendment resolution isn’t designed to elect more Republicans. Legislation also could be filed this session requiring local government candidates to run partisan races, and a bill is already filed requiring closed primaries.

“I would hope more Republicans, Democrats and independents would vote. We want more folks voting period. Higher turnout, higher participation always leads to … better elected officials across the board,” Lamberth said after the House adjourned last week. “The more people that vote, the better the folks that are elected are going to reflect the will of the people.”

Lamberth is also sponsoring legislation that would cut the Metro Nashville Council to 20 members from 40, a move he said is designed to increase efficiency. Critics say it is a form of retaliation against the council for rejecting the 2024 and 2028 Republican National Conventions last summer.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth is sponsoring a resolution to change Tennessee’s Constitution and move local elections from August to November, a move some election officials contend will serve to confuse voters.

Rutherford County Elections Administrator Alan Farley said Friday he doesn’t foresee any problems administratively with moving elections to November. County election offices are accustomed to handling large ballots, including this year’s ballot, which had four constitutional amendment questions.

“The logistics of the election is the same, it’s just a matter of the ballot options. It could cause confusion for some of the voters by having so many different ballot options,” Farley said. 

People already ask questions about voting in partisan and nonpartisan elections in August, he said. 

Farley also raised questions about the future date for the March presidential preference primary. It could be moved to August, but states that do that would have a diminished role in selecting presidential candidates because most of the nominations would be determined by then, he said.

County governments also “piggy-back” on that election using state funds to reimburse expenses for their local primaries, Farley added. 

The logistics of the election is the same, it’s just a matter of the ballot options. It could cause confusion for some of the voters by having so many different ballot options.

– Alan Farley, Rutherford County Elections Administrator

Counties are seeing multiple ballot options already, including municipal votes that have moved to August and November, and voters dealt with a litany of constitutional questions last fall, bringing election lines to a crawl. 

One question dealing with the succession of power in the case of an ill governor took up at least three pages on ballots and required voters to spend several minutes digesting it. Another measure designed to remove “slavery” from the Constitution led to a questionable voter explanation by the Cannon County Election Office in Woodbury.

Asked about Lamberth’s resolution, House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons said Friday his caucus is focused on making sure elections are free and fair and eliminating unnecessary barriers from the voting booth.

“Meanwhile, I remain concerned about all efforts to further exacerbate political divides within the government and manipulate the democratic process for the sole purpose of consolidating even more power in a state that already suffers from one-party rule,” Clemmons said via text message.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville: Concerned about efforts to "manipulate the democratic process." (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville: Concerned about efforts to “manipulate the democratic process.” (Photo: John Partipilo)

Republicans hold a supermajority in the state House and Senate as well as the governor’s office.

Election advocates have complained for years that Tennessee’s voter participation rate is one of the lowest in the nation.

In 2020, the state set a record when 3,045,401 Tennesseans, more than 68% of active and inactive voters, cast ballots on Election Day or by absentee mail-on ballot in the Nov. 3 presidential election. That topped the previous record of 2,618,238 in 2008.

In order to change the state Constitution, a resolution for an amendment must be passed by two consecutive general assemblies and then approved by a majority of voters participating in the next gubernatorial election.

The Tennessee League of Women Voters is evaluating the impact of Lamberth’s resolution but is concerned about House Bill 121, which would close primaries across the state, President Debby Gould said Friday.

Freshman state Rep. Bryan Richey, R-Maryville, is sponsoring the closed primary legislation. It would require a person to declare a statewide political party or recognized minor party before voting in a primary election.

Republicans have chafed at the idea of Democrats voting in GOP primaries, claiming they are trying to undermine some Republican candidates. In many cases, though, Republican primaries might have the only candidates for an office during that election cycle, if no Democrat files papers to run.

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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.