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Will the city's newly appointed election commissioners do a better job of not drawing attention than their predecessors?

Somewhere Under the Radar

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I'm an anesthesiologist," says state Sen. Steve Dickerson, "and if I do my job well, nobody knows that I even was there."

The list of things for which the same rule applies is long; airplane pilots, the sound guy at a concert, the automatic transmission in your car. And Dickerson says you can add election commissions to the list.

"I'd like our election commission to function with that same sort of anonymity," he tells the Scene. "I think the best election commission is the one you don't even know is there."

The newly elected — and only — Republican state senator from Davidson County is careful not to "cast aspersions" on the three Republican commissioners, Lynn Greer, Patricia Heim and Steve Abernathy, who learned late last month that they would not be reappointed to the Davidson County Election Commission. Last week, Dickerson, along with the county's other Republican state delegates, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Sen. Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), announced they had nominated attorneys Ronald Buchanan and Jennifer Lawson and former Metro Councilman and state Rep. Jim Gotto to replace them. On the Democratic side, state legislators replaced Eddie Bryan with civil rights attorney Tricia Herzfeld but renominated A.J. Starling.

The State Election Commission has already confirmed Herzfeld and Starling, and is expected to do the same for the three Republican nominees at its April 15 meeting.

The outgoing Republican commissioners, Dickerson says, were "all very good people, all good public servants." Asked directly why the GOP delegation decided to replace the trio, Dickerson says that as a result of a number of factors in and out of the commission's control, a "contentious situation" had developed. In light of that, he says, the delegation felt "a fresh start was the way to go."

As he describes the ideal commission, a body made mostly undetectable by way of its smooth operation, it's easy to deduce what precipitated the recent change. For the last year, the election commission has been quite noticeable, with every shift of its operations accompanied by a noisy grinding of gears.

Ahead of Tennessee's presidential primary, in March 2012, the commission of three Republicans and two Democrats ruffled feathers by removing a Saturday from the early voting period — a decision that potentially violated state law — and on a lesser scale by locating early voting sites in Democratic stronghold Bordeaux but not Republican-friendly Belle Meade.

Then in August 2012, following the state primary elections, controversy surfaced again when the government watchdog group Tennessee Citizen Action raised concerns about newly implemented electronic poll books. The group cited several examples in which voters, including three elected officials, were given Republican primary ballots in error (and apparently by default). While Davidson County Elections Administrator Albert Tieche subsequently explained that a programming error had made the mistake more likely, and showed that even the closest primary elections could not have been affected, the commission elected not to use the electronic poll books in the following general elections.  

Nevertheless, November's general elections were fraught with reports of long lines, understaffed precincts and short supplies of provisional ballots and change-of-address forms. A bigger fracas was still to come, though — touched off this year by Abernathy's proposal to review the citizenship of any recently registered voters who were born outside of the United States.

In February, Abernathy said he believed between 3,000 and 10,000 non-U.S. citizens could be unlawfully registered to vote in Davidson County. Just this week, that number was amended by state election coordinator Mark Goins' office to a somewhat lower figure — to be exact, 14. What's more, according to the state Division of Elections, only one of those individuals had voted, but not in 2012.

A commission meeting on the subject March 21 was filled beyond capacity, requiring overflow rooms for the reporters, activists and ordinary citizens. So stiff was the opposition from immigrant rights groups — buttressed by an opinion from Metro attorneys, who said the plan was "constitutionally suspect" — that the commission abandoned the plan.

With each of these firestorms has come questions, if not flat-out accusations, about whether the Republican-controlled commission is acting with partisan motives. Heim declined to comment, but Abernathy, Greer and Starling all deny that partisan politics play a role in the commission's decisions. Instead, they suggest that their actions are often viewed through partisan filters.

"Any time politics are involved in a situation you have the potential — errors can be made to seem larger than they actually are," Tieche says. "I'm not saying that did or didn't happen, I'm just saying you know politics as well as I do, there's always that potential."

But even if partisan winds don't sway the commission, they certainly swirl around them. Abernathy and Starling, along with party sources outside the commission, say there is often pressure on commissioners from various factions within the two parties to use the commission to further partisan goals.

"I think there are groups that would like to use the election commission as a bully pulpit for one party or the other," Starling says. "Now, I don't think in reality that happens because we have to follow the law. We're guided by statute and state codes that we have to follow. So it's not the bully pulpit that a lot of people may think it is."

Those factors also come into play when the state delegation goes about choosing nominees. Both Dickerson and Harwell emphasize the importance of selecting nominees who will "treat the ballot box with integrity." But other GOP sources acknowledge that more strident factions within the county party must be placated to a certain extent — such as those who complained about early voting in Bordeaux but not Belle Meade.

Geography also comes into play. Abernathy says one reason he was initially appointed was because he's a Republican from Antioch, where the increased visibility of a party member could help to expand the GOP's reach.

But if the state GOP was looking to quell controversy with the commission and root out the perception of partisanship, it appears to have made a curious choice in appointing Jim Gotto, who many expect will aim for the commission's chairmanship. While Buchanan and Lawson are political unknowns, Gotto's reputation in Davidson County is not only purely partisan but controversial.

He is, after all, the same Jim Gotto who, as a state representative, participated in a closed-door meeting in 2011 with conservative business leaders and fellow state Rep. Glen Casada. That infamous meeting began the ultimately successful push to nullify the city's anti-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBT workers, which had only recently been passed by the Metro Council — on which Gotto served also at the time.

One could argue Gotto kept his dealings then out of the spotlight, though perhaps not in the way Dickerson recommends. Yet Harwell and Dickerson both cite his experience in government and integrity as reasons for the selection.  

"I think he's a man of integrity," says Harwell, who holds the gavel as the only Nashville Republican left in the state House, after Gotto's defeat in November. One source within the party says that loss has sharpened her interest in Gotto's future. "Whether you agree or disagree with him," Harwell explains, "you do know that he's an honest man with integrity, and I think he'll do a good job in this position."

Going forward, the rubric for the new commission is pretty straightforward.

"If this was the last interview I ever gave about the election commission," Steve Dickerson says, "I would think I'd done a really good job, in concert with the speaker and Sen. Haile, picking the individuals."

And so far the new commissioners are doing a bang-up job of their first order of business: staying out of the press. None of the new Republican appointees responded to the Scene's calls for comment by press time.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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