Every vote counts. And in the contest for the Chattanooga City Council District 9 seat, even a percentage of a vote counted.
Hamilton County election officials decided Wednesday that Yusuf Hakeem won the March 5 election for the District 9 seat over incumbent Peter Murphy after they voted 3-1 to toss out two write-in votes that were marked but left blank.
The decision decreased the total number of votes in the race to 2,059, increasing Hakeem’s vote percentage to 50.024 percent. That bump locked the victory for Hakeem by less than half of a percantage point — but it was enough to win.
The election commissioners kept five other write-in votes for unqualified candidates -- such as "Mickey Mouse," "J.J." and three others including candidates from the District 8 city race. But they nixed the blank write-ins claiming they were not discernible votes.
Statistics aside -- in real numbers -- Hakeem had six more votes than Murphy.
On March 5, Hakeem took 1,030 ballots, or 49.98 percent of the vote -- just shy of the more than 50 percent required to seal the election. Murphy won 1,024 votes, or 49.68 percent. The remaining 0.3 percent was tied up in the seven write-in votes.
With two of those ballots ditched, Hakeem's vote percentage jumped to 50.024.
Hakeem, who served in the office from 1990 to 2006, said after the decision he was "grateful" for the election commission and said he was pleased the debate was over.
He said he thought all along he had won, and the question about the write-in votes "placed a dark cloud" over the election.
When asked why he would challenge a runoff, he said Murphy shouldn't get a "do over," and voters made their decision.
At the start of the meeting Wednesday, election commissioners acknowledged that no matter what was decided, they would likely be sued. But Murphy said immediately after the decision he had not decided whether he would take the election commission to court.
"I'm going to talk with people who have been supporting me, and folks in District 9, and we'll see," Murphy said.
Prior to their vote, election commissioners heard from attorneys on both sides.
Stuart James, who represents Murphy, argued that all the write-in votes should have been considered and a runoff election held.
Despite all seven write-ins being unqualified as countable votes under Tennessee law, James argued they were "protest votes" protected by the First Amendment. Speaking specifically about the votes that eventually were thrown out, James said voters had intentionally selected the "none of the above" option and had therefore cast their ballots.
Hakeem's attorney, Hal North, argued before the commission that the decision to get rid of the blank votes was "common sense" and that the blank ballots clearly weren't qualified votes.
The lone dissenting vote on the commission to toss the two ballots belonged to Election Commissioner Jerry Summers.
"We've always erred on the side of the electoral process. ... I don't think the people in the 9th District are going to lose if there is a runoff," Summers said.
Commissioner Tommy Crangle made the motion to drop the blank votes. It was seconded by James Anderson; Ruth Braly also voted in favor of it.
Chairman Michael Walden, who declined to vote unless a tie occurred, said there was no right answer.
"There was no good decision -- nothing you could feel good about," Walden said.
Repeating after the meeting that Murphy had no legal challenge immediately planned, his attorney, James, said what the commission did was wrong.
"What the election commission did legally is throw out some votes and keep others," James said. "What's wrong about what they did is they cherry-picked votes."
Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...