Election Commission to send DA list of questionable voters

Jan. 19, 2013 @ 11:26 AM

The Sevier County Election Commission will ask District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn to investigate the 289 people who cast improper ballots in the Pigeon Forge liquor-by-the-drink referendum.

Commission member Darrell Whitchurch made the motion, saying he wanted to ensure every possible step was taken to keep mistakes from happening again and to see that anyone who intentionally cast a fraudulent vote was caught.

"I think we should say, hey, we didn't do ... fraud and by golly, if there's somebody out there screwing with the system from either side, I'm ready to start saying crucify them," Whitchurch said.

It isn't clear how the commission intends for investigators to determine the intent of individual voters. The  Nov. 6 referendum appeared to have passed on a 1,232 to 1,132 vote. Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge, the group that opposed the measure, filed a contest of election saying it appeared election workers could not verify that about 300 voters in that election were eligible to cast ballots in a city election.

The commission acknowledged that 289 voters appeared to have cast improper ballots, and Chancellor Telford Forgety tossed out the results and ordered a new election last week. The commission scheduled the election for March 14.

Whitchurch acknowledged during Thursday's meeting that most of the problems appear to have come from errors, but said the commission needs to make every effort to see to it people who intentionally cast the improper ballots are prosecuted.

"I realize the great majority of these were snafus and screwups, but we've all heard the allegations made by both sides that there was out and out voter fraud. and I think we should address it."

Commissioner John Huff said he believed some of those voters knew what they were doing, even if they only had the opportunity because of mistakes by staff. 

"I know there's some ... people out there voted and (knew) they was wrong," he said, later adding, "You've got a city commissioner in Pigeon Forge, his two sons voted and (knew) they didn't live there and he's the main one against that, causing this problem ..." 

Huff was apparently referring to Pigeon Forge City Commissioner Randal Robinson, who is also a member of Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge. Robinson admitted this week that his two sons live outside the city, but remained registered to vote in Pigeon Forge and did so in the referendum.

However, their names don't appear on the list of people who voted outside the city that was submitted to Forgety. They were listed were among the registered residential voters taking part in the election given to The Mountain Press by the election commission in December.

Huff also said he believed a number of voters from outside the city voted against the measure because they didn't want Pigeon Forge to have liquor by the drink.

"I'd say if you get the 287 (sic), if you throw them out, this thing would carry by a lot more than 100 votes," he said.

In addition to sending the information to the district attorney general's office, the commission also formally ordered staff to cooperate in any law enforcement investigations launched into the election.

No law enforcement agency has announced a formal inquiry into the election, but during depositions for the lawsuit CCCPF Chairman Jess Davis said the group contacted the FBI about it. The FBI, following its standard policy, will not confirm or deny whether it started an investigation.

Election commissioner Michael Fitzgibbons said the commission needed to take the action to show the public the commission is cooperating if there is an investigation, and that it expects the staff to do so.

"Anybody in this office, if they come asking for information, we don't hold back," he said.

Huff said he favored giving all records to any law enforcement officers without resistance, but not to individuals, specifically mentioning Charles Rhodes, the CCCPF member who uncovered the improper votes.

The commission voted 4-0 to approve both measures, with Huff, Fitzgibbons, Whitchurch and Joe Newman voting in favor. Chairman J.B. Matthews was out of town.

n jfarrell@themountainpress.com