Liquor opponents still have questions, won't contest results

Mar. 28, 2013 @ 11:02 PM

Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge Chairman Jess Davis said Wednesday his group still has unanswered questions concerning the latest referendum approving the sale of liquor by the drink, but it will not file another contest of election.

Davis said opponents asked the Sevier County Election Commission to provide documents on voters who took part in the election, but officials said they couldn’t provide that information in a timely manner. Under state law, a contest of election must be filed within the first five days after the vote is certified. Without that data, Davis said, opponents can’t evaluate whether the election was proper.

He indicated that during early voting, Concerned Churches discovered 70 people who voted while holding 1 to 5 percent interest in property in the city, something he maintains could be illegal. Opponents asked election officials for the addresses used by people who voted early as residents, so that information could be verified.

Opponents also asked election officials to provide similar information on people who voted on election day, Davis said. This request was filed on election day. Under state law, a department has seven days to either turn over documents requested in an open records request, or to explain why the records were not provided.

With the election commission certifying the referendum on March 21, state law gave Concerned Churches five days to file a contest of election, Davis said. Without those documents, opponents didn’t feel they could proceed.

“It’s obvious [election officials] don’t want us to see all of the deeds and voters’ addresses until after the deadline to contest has passed,” he said in a written statement. “Although we defeated the pro liquor forces three times, they only had to win once. But without these documents delivered to us timely, there is no way for us to determine if the election was flawed or not.”

Election officials, contacted Wednesday, said they hadn’t yet finished compiling the data Davis had requested. Under state law, they have a deadline of more than a month to finish compiling that data, they said.

Davis said Concerned Churches wasn’t willing to file a compliant without more facts. To overturn an election, the group would have to prove the number of illegal votes exceeded the margin of victory.

In the case of the latest referendum, Concerned Churches would need to document at least 154 invalid votes, given the election result of 952 to 798. Once opponents determined they couldn’t find that number before the deadline would pass, they decided not to file the lawsuit, Davis said.

Concerned Churches successfully contested of the results of the November election, getting the Sevier County Election Commission to admit that about 300 voters from outside Pigeon Forge who came to city hall to vote in state and national elections were mistakenly allowed to vote in the city election.

In the latest election, the group focused on minority-interest land owners — the ones with one to five percent interest in property. Davis believes it was illegal for them to vote under that clause; he said his group could have proved that some cases involved illegal real estate transactions, or that land owners gave away interest in valuable propery to purchase votes.

“[Concerned Churches’ attorney] is adamant that in his opinion, the one percenters are illegal,” Davis said. “If he’d gone to court on this, the issue would have been, were they doing this property transfer on a legitimate property transfer basis, or was it being done for the sole purpose of being able to vote?”

Register of deeds Sherry Huskey has said that property owners can transfer interest in property at any time, to anyone, and state officials have said they only require proof that the voter has the required interest in the property.

In addition to the issues with the election, Davis said his group also was discouraged after learning that a large number of people who voted against the measure in November didn’t cast ballots in the revote.

The overall turnout was lower than the last election, with 1,750 people voting in March, compared to 2,364 in November. Presidential elections typically draw the largest turnout, but Davis also attributed the lower turnout on his side to people who had concluded that a vote against liquor by the drink would deprive local schools of liquor tax revenues earmarked for education.

Davis believes the November election wasn’t the first time there were improper votes cast on a liquor by the drink referendum in Sevier County; he said his group has found evidence there were 766 improper votes cast when it was approved in Sevierville.

jfarrell@themountainpress.com