Questions regarding the ability of voters to vote in primary elections were a frequent topic of conversation among candidates and local party officials on Wednesday, the first day of early voting at the Madison County Election Commission.
Madison County Republican Party Chairman Larry Lowrance said he’d talked with Mike Bledsoe, chairman of the Election Commission, multiple times including Wednesday morning about making sure a statute in the Tennessee Codes regarding primary elections is posted visibly to let people know the law regarding crossing party lines to vote in a primary.
TCA Code 2-7-115: “(b) A registered voter is entitled to vote in a primary election for offices for which the voter is qualified to vote at the polling place where the voter is registered if:
“(1) The voter is a bona fide member of and affiliated with the political party
in whose primary the voter seeks to vote; or
“(2) At the time the voter seeks to vote, the voter declares allegiance to the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote and states that the voter intends to affiliate with that party.”
According to Lowrance, anyone who’s not a member of the Republican or Democrat party trying to vote in either one is in violation of the law.
“For one thing, it’s not right for a Democrat to vote in the Republican primary or for a Republican to vote in the Democrat primary,” Lowrance said. “And if a person chooses to not be a affiliated with either party and be independent, then they forfeit the opportunity to vote in a primary and can vote in the general election.
“Because this primary isn’t electing anyone other than simply nominating the party’s candidate for public office. So the parties should have the ability to do that without interference from anyone outside the party.”
Richard Donnell, who hosts the talk show “Community Feedback” on WFKX-FM 95.7, said he confirmed with a state election official that because Tennessee is an open primary state that voters are allowed to cross party lines or independent voters are allowed to vote.
“I was on my show last week encouraging people to vote in the Republican primary, even if they’re Democrat because all of the Democrats are running unopposed in this election,” Donnell said. “I wouldn’t have done that if someone with the state commission hadn’t told me we could, and we’re an open primary state, so we have that right.”
The e-mail Donnell received came from Kathy Summers, who's an elections specialist with the state election commission.
"In Tennessee, we do not register to vote by party," Summers told Donnell. "If one votes in a primary election, the voter is required to declare party allegiance when they vote on Election Day.
"Under our current law, nothing would prohibit one from voting in one party for a specific primary election, and then voting in the next primary election in the other party’s primary election. When a voter participates in a primary election, the voters choice for that election is noted on their voter history."
A person at the center of the situation is Olivia Abernathy, who voted on Wednesday morning. She posted a statement on her campaign page on Facebook as she's an independent candidate for Madison County Commission District 2, Position 1.
"I was proud and excited to go exercise my civic duty and vote in the Madison County primary this morning," said the statement that was posted Wednesday evening. "Shortly after, I was notified that my ballot had been contested by someone who saw me walk in to vote, on the objection that I am an Independent.
"Tennessee is an open primary state. According to state law, you do not formally register for a party, but rather choose a party when you cast a primary ballot. You are legally able to vote in any primary regardless of your voting history. Historically, I have voted in many primaries as an Independent with no issue. I have no intent other than to vote for candidates that I think have the best interest of our community in mind. I contacted the Election Commission and thankfully was told I did nothing wrong and my ballot would be counted."
Both Madison County Election Administrator Lori Lott and Julia Brunk, the communications director for the state election commission, said they simply follow the rule of law in the TCA Code.
Any vote that doesn’t follow the rule of law could be challenged, but the challenge must be made at the time a vote is made by an official poll watcher or poll officer. Lott confirmed no one applied to have a watcher in place before the early voting deadline on Monday. The deadline to apply for poll watchers on Election Day (May 3) is April 29.
Reach Brandon Shields at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JSEditorBrandon or on Instagram at editorbrandon.
This article originally appeared on Jackson Sun: Local Republicans challenge crossing party lines for primary elections