A new election law is in effect—but will it stay?
The question of “Who’s in charge around here?” in city elections—either the Knoxville city charter or Tennessee state legislature—has been settled by the latter. Unless things change. Although, it might be hard to tell who cares about the elections apart from city officials, because regardless of when they’re held, most city voters saturate polling places with their absence.
The dispute isn’t when city elections take place, but who’s on the ballot. The November 7, 2023 city elections spotlight the issue: in the city council elections, on the ballot were three at-large (representing the entire city) seats—and the District 5 seat. The at-large races were citywide votes. But the 5th district election was citywide as well, because this was the general election. The August 29th primary, however, was restricted to voters who lived within the district. The District 5 incumbent ran unopposed, but had he opponents, the district’s top two finishers in the primary would have gone on to be on the ballot in the general election.
City elections for more than 50 years have worked the same way: in primaries, candidates for one of the city’s six district council seats run within their districts; the two highest vote getters are then on the general election ballot. Though district voters have selected their preferred representative, voters citywide can potentially reject the district’s choice and put the No. 2 primary finisher on city council to represent the district. Morristown is the only other Tennessee city with the same system.
But on January 1, 2024, a new law went into effect requiring district city council seats to be decided by district-only voters, while the three at-large seats would remain city-wide votes. Knoxville city leaders are, at this writing, considering legal challenges to the law.
An argument made in favor of the original system is that it was put in place to help ensure minority representation on city council. But it could go the other way as well. A 2017 News Sentinel column by Georgiana Vines, headlined, “Politicians say 6th Council District could lose black representation,” led with, “Several present and past African-American politicians say they are concerned about which two top candidates will emerge in the 6th District City Council race in the Aug. 29 city primary. Some say Jennifer Montgomery, a white realtor, is likely to be one of the two.” That didn’t happen, but it could have.
This isn’t as much about race as it is politics. That same year, “progressive” candidate Seema Singh lost in the 3rd district primary to more conservative candidate James Corcoran. But when the election went citywide, Singh won. This is evidence that the 3rd district voters’ representation decision—or any district voters’ decisions—can fall victim to voters who don’t live in the district.
A reason cited in support of Knoxville’s historical election process is that it compels candidates and council members to consider voters throughout the city rather than in separate districts. However, they can do that anyway. A stronger argument against monkeying with the election system is to say that it’s none of the legislature’s business how Knoxville, a home rule city, runs its elections. The process has been decided locally, the locals aren’t trying to revise the system, so Knoxville should be left alone.
But Republican State Rep. Elaine Davis assessed the situation and hoped to change the Knoxville election system. Her position was based on disenfranchisement of district voters: they select their city council members, and their decision should be respected, not overruled by outside-the-district voters. Her legislation passed the state House of Representatives 76-21; the state Senate approved the measure 25-5. On May 11, 2023, it was signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee. At this writing, the present City Council is exploring whether a legal challenge to the state law is warranted.`
Of equal concern is low voter turnout and how it impacts the results. In the November 7, 2023 election, for example, of 102,000 registered city voters, 89,000 had something else more important to do.
In my opinion, if Knoxville wants citywide council elections, then it should give voters a proposal to eliminate district elections altogether. It would end the present sham of primary elections, the results of which can be reversed by voters citywide. If voters really are in charge around here, then their decisions regarding their district city council representation should be final. Otherwise, it’s the voting system, and not the voters, who is in charge.