published Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probes Rhea County voting

NASHVILLE -- The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is probing complaints about challenges Republican election officials have made of some Rhea County voters seeking to cast ballots in the Aug. 2 GOP primary.

But Rhea County Election Administrator Theresa Snyder said she is "very confident" the investigation will show she and others acted legally in blocking Democratic voters.

She charged there have been orchestrated efforts by some Democratic officials to get Democrats to cross over and vote in the GOP primary.

The ballot includes a heated state House District 31 primary between Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, and GOP challenger Ron Travis, a Dayton businessman.

Travis first raised concerns last week when one of his supporters was challenged. Cobb has said he did not encourage the challenges, noting he figures Democrats would be voting for him, too.

State Election Coordinator Mark Goins, a Republican, said Wednesday he is unaware of any similar challenges occurring statewide.

"That doesn't mean there hasn't," Goins said.

Election administrators in Sequatchie, Bledsoe and Roane counties said they are not aware of any challenges based on voting history. All of Sequatchie and Bledsoe counties were added to the 31st as well as part of Roane during redistricting this year.

Twelfth Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor requested TBI officials look into voter criticisms about the Rhea County challenges, TBI spokeswoman Kristen Helm said.

She said Taylor requested the probe on July 19 "to investigate allegations against election officials for improperly challenging voters in a particular political affiliation when casting ballots."

Describing the investigation as "ongoing," Helm said agents will turn their findings over to Taylor for review and to determine whether further actions are merited.

Assistant Attorney General Will Dunn said Taylor asked for the investigation following complaints from Democrats and Republicans that Republican officials invoked a little-used state law to challenge some voters from casting ballots in the GOP primary.

Democrats have no candidate running in the District 31 contest and the GOP primary election will determine who goes to the Legislature after the November general election.

Tennessee law says a registered voter is entitled to vote in a primary election if the voter is a "bona fide member" of a party in whose primary the voter wishes to cast a ballot.

But state law also has a provision allowing the voter to declare his or her "allegiance" to the political party in which he or she wants to vote, enabling them to vote.

Maxine Vincent, wife of Dayton Mayor Bob Vincent, said in an interview last week that she and others were challenged by Snyder.

Vincent, a Travis supporter who acknowledged having voted in some Democratic primaries, said Snyder administered an oath to her and she stated her allegiance to Republicans.

She said Snyder immediately convened a three-judge panel of Republicans, including Snyder, and they said the challenge stood.

Vincent said she was allowed to cast a paper ballot that Snyder told her would be "rejected."

Snyder said her office and local Republicans have done nothing wrong, and she welcomed the investigation.

"We feel very good about it," she said. "We explained [to the TBI] the statutes we were going by in the law book. We feel very good and feel very confident there will be no charges."

She said 10 voters with Democratic voting histories were challenged. Nine of the cases were upheld by three-judge panels comprised of Republicans, as required by state law. In the other case, the challenge was not upheld and a voter was allowed to cast ballot.

Snyder said she has already asked the district attorney's office to investigate one voter who was rejected and went elsewhere in the county and voted in the Republican primary. She said she also is considering referring a second case.

The election administrator also said Democrats, including Democratic election commissioners Hurley Marsh and Johnny Harwood, had been encouraging Democrats to cross over.

Rhea County Democratic Party Chairwoman Doris Roy said, "We are not orchestrating a drive to cross over and vote for somebody else. I have no inkling of such a thing. ... I think it's just an individual thing of what people want to do."

She said some Democrats have told her they planned to vote for Travis while others said they would back Cobb.

Marsh said he has taken an oath to support Democrats and has not encouraged anyone to cross over. While Snyder asserted he has one of the Republican's signs in his yard, Marsh said he doesn't.

"I don't get into that," he said. "I just try to stay out of it."

Marsh said whoever wins the GOP primary will be representing everyone, Democrats, Republicans and independents. He knows of no organized effort to get Democrats to cross over, but he said Democrats and independents would naturally want to have a say.

"I think there's profiling," Marsh said of the challenges. "There's no consistency. It's kind of like pick and choose."

He said he is worried about Rhea County getting a "black eye" across the state over the challenges.

State Election Coordinator Goins said he has received complaints from Democrats and Republicans about the Rhea County party challenges to Vincent. He said he spoke to Snyder about Vincent but has not been contacted by the TBI.

"From her description, she was would have followed proper procedure, based on what she has shared with me," Goins said.

Goins said it is hard for him to second-guess Snyder's decisions because the whole issue has turned "nasty" in Rhea County. He said the State Election Commission recently admonished Harwood after listening to a Snyder-supplied tape of a local commission meeting in which Harwood said if he were challenged, he had a .38. He said that while it appeared to him Harwood was joking, Goins questioned it given the tenor of the times.

Asked whether Snyder should have served on the three-member all-Republican panel of judges hearing the challenge, Goins said, "it's not the ideal situation. If you're asking my preference, I don't think it's the correct way to do things.

"Whether it's legal is another question," Goins said. "I don't think it's forbidden under the code. ... I wouldn't have done it. It doesn't appear to be illegal under the code."

As for upholding the challenge after Vincent swore to answer Snyder's questions truthfully and declared her allegiance to the GOP, Goins said "the code gives the judges discretion. But I would think that if they said yes, these folks are under oath, these folks should be allowed to vote."

Goins said based on what Snyder told him, it is "clear" those challenged were not "bona fide" Republicans based on their voting history. He said one person challenged was a former county Democratic Party chairman and a former voting machine technician appointed by Democrats.

He said he was challenged in front of a TBI agent.

Goins said based on what he's hearing out of Rhea, some Democrats have a problem because they say they want to vote in the Republican primary because that amounts to the election. But when asked they say they don't want to "affiliate" with the Republican Party, Goins said.

Marsh said he was present when Vincent was challenged. He said she did declare her allegiance to the Republican Party.

Harwood, meanwhile, did not return repeated telephone calls Wednesday afternoon and evening.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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