By Kerri Bartlett, Managing Editor, Williamson Herald
FRANKLIN, TN — The Williamson County Election Commission voted 3-2 last month to turn a complaint of possible “voter fraud” over to District Attorney Kim Helper, regarding two qualified Democratic candidates in the county and state primaries.
The election commission also unanimously voted 5-0, requiring state law TCA 2-7-115 to be posted at all polling locations in the county, alerting voters that state law requires voters to be a “bona fide” member of the party on the ballot on which they are voting.
The issues stem from qualifying candidates “crossing over party lines” when voting in the Williamson County Primary election. Two Republican candidates have already been disqualified from running in the county and state election due to not meeting the state GOP “bona fide” Republican status adopted by the state party, according to Article IX, Section 2.
Two candidates’ voting records at issue
Franklin resident Anne McGraw-D, who is running for 4th District county commissioner, and Bill Peach-D, who is running for 63rd House representative, voted early in the May 1 County Republican Primary, Williamson County Election Office records show.
After their Republican-cast votes were brought to the attention of Chad Gray, election administrator, he sent a letter to the five-member Williamson County Election Commission, who gathered at a special-called meeting to review the complaint Wednesday.
Williamson County Republican Party Chairman Debbie Deaver identified Peach and McGraw’s Primary ballot votes and brought it to the attention of the county election office, claiming they violated state law under Tennessee Code Annotated 2-7-115.
Deaver said her concern about the Democratic candidates’ votes in a statement to the Williamson Herald.
“While Tennessee is recognized as having open primaries, state law requires that to vote in a party primary the voter must be a ‘bona fide’ member of that party and the voter ‘intends to affiliate’ with that party. (TCA 2-7-115),” Deaver said.
“It is unlikely someone running as a Democrat on the ballot is in compliance with state law, and likely that they may have committed voter fraud. I urged the Election Commission to look into the matter.”
Voter fraud is classified as a felony.
TCA 2-7-115 states the following:
(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.
More statutes in question
However, this is not the only statute the commission discussed that challenges Peach’s and McGraw’s votes.
State law further addresses stipulations for qualified Republican and Democrat primary candidates, stating that a “bona fide candidate,” is expected to vote on their party’s designated ballot. Those statutes include TCA 2-13-104 and TCA 2-5-204.
Party membership requirements for candidates under TCA 2-13-104 state the following:
“All candidates for state executive committee membership and for membership in the general assembly shall be bona fide members of the political party whose election they seek. A party may require by rule that candidates for its nominations be bona fide members of the party.”
Bona fide party member
Williamson County Democratic Chairman Holly McCall said a Democrat’s bona fide status is in many ways subjective in its party’s bylaws, whereas the Republicans state specific stipulations including requiring members to have voted in the last three out of four statewide primaries.
Election Commission discusses possible violations
County Election Commission Chairman Robert D. Brown cited the statute as a possible violation by Peach, who is running as a state Democratic candidate and previously certified to run by the commission.
Brown said the commission does not have the authority to determine if a state law has been violated and suggested that the case be turned over to the DA.
“I just have to go along with what the TCA says,” said Brown, a Republican.
“All I know is to refer this to the district attorney. We don’t have investigative hours or subpoena power or can determine if they have knowingly done something. The only thing I know to do is to turn this over to the DA.”
Ultimately, the commission approved the motion 3-2, with the only two Democratic members voting against.
Deaver, state GOP executive committeewoman Rebecca Burke, who is also a candidate running in the 61st House District, and McCall were present at the meeting and allowed to address the commission.
Peach previously said he just learned about the bona fide voter law, TCA 2-7-115, this week and speculated many others most likely did not know either.
“I think the law is very clear and ignorance of the law does not excuse someone from breaking the law,” Burke said.
“We are watching very carefully what is happening in our primaries. Republican primaries are for Republicans period.”
Educating voters on fraud
Burke went on to suggest ways the party could determine whether one is a bona fide Republican to prevent voter fraud in primaries.
Burke explained in some jurisdictions in Tennessee, they have party members sign an “oath of allegiance to the party” before they are allowed to vote in that primary.
“We have never had to do that here, but it has been brought to our attention that there has been crossover and that is why we are tracking it,” Burke said.
In some cases, she said it might come to the Republican Party devising a “flagged list” of those Republicans with Democratic voting records.
“We have to have some means of pledging … oath of allegiance to the party,” Burke said. “It may be that we just have certain names flagged that consistently vote Democratic and unless they sign that oath, they cannot vote in a Republican Primary.”
Brown said only targeting a few doesn’t seem like the answer to prevent voter fraud.
“If you want to do an oath do it for everybody. Just pick a few here and there … that seems out of bounds for me,” Brown said, also highlighting it would be difficult to regulate.
Burke and election commissioners seemed concerned that average voters might not be informed about the current law, specifically TCA 2-7-115.
“It is good to bring to the public’s attention,” Burke said. “The public needs to know they are committing a felony if they crossover to vote in a party’s primary in which they feel no sense of affiliation.”
The election commission unanimously voted 5-0 to require the TCA law to be posted at all polling locations in the county.
Gray said he would try to get the law posted at all voting sites, starting tomorrow, which is the last day to vote early in the May 1 county primary.
“I don’t feel like we have an open primary. I feel like we have an honor system,” Deaver said. “When these rules were written the legislators who drafted this were not intending that people would try to subvert or to manipulate or use the polls as a political weapon.”
Deaver said she is advocating for something to be done about the two candidates’ records brought to the commission, not so much the general voting population.
“The issue we have someone voting in the Republican Primary, who is a Democratic candidate. There is no way they are affiliated with our party or a bona fide Republican. They broke the law.”
“They knew that was not acceptable behavior, and I think that speaks to character.”
McCall suggests counter legal action
McCall told the commission she was “fairly upset that these candidates voted in the Republican Primary” instead of the Democratic Primary.
On the other hand, McCall said she understands McGraw and Peach “have a right to decide who their county mayor is and who their county sheriff is.”
”This is borderline voter disenfranchisement and if this goes forward, the Democratic Party will be employing resources to hire attorneys and let me just say turnabouts fair play …
“We might be seeing more meetings in this room,” McCall said.
McCall also expressed concern the candidates in question had not been contacted by the Republican Party or Election Commission about the allegations of voter fraud, nor had the commission meeting been widely publicized.
Peach explains his Republican Primary vote
“Under the TCA statute, basically no one can vote in a Republican primary unless they pledge alliegance to the Republican Party. That would exclude Independents and Democrats,” Peach said.
Peach defended the reason why he voted in the County Republican Primary. A lifelong county resident and known Democrat, Peach also ran for a state seat in 2014.
“I have voted in the Republican Primary since 1982,” Peach said. “If I had voted Democrat, I would not have been able to vote for anyone. Had I voted in a Democratic Primary, I would have had a blank ballot.”
Peach lives in the 12th District in Williamson County. In the county commission race, no democrats are running in the 12th District. In the County Departmental offices such as mayor, Register of Deeds, County Clerk, and County Juvenile Clerk, no Democrats are on the ballot.
“I also violated this in 2014, I’d like to plead guilty to that also,” Peach said.
“I look forward to having a conversation with the DA,” he added.
“My concern is about all of the voters who are being disenfranchised,” Peach emphasized after the meeting.
The county has not had a Democratic Primary in approximately 20 years. Peach said if he wanted to vote for those who represent him, he has not had a choice.
McGraw was not present at the meeting and when contacted she declined to comment for this story.
About the TCA statute to be posted tomorrow at the polls, Gray said, “this falls back to voters. There is no way for the poll workers to know.”