Liquor foes file election contest

Lawsuit filed Wednesday, asks for speedy trial
Nov. 22, 2012 @ 03:33 PM

Opponents of the liquor-by-the-drink voting outcome didn’t wait for the deadline to contest the results of that election.

After the Sevier County Election Commission certified the 1,232 to 1,132 affirmative vote for liquor by the drink Monday afternoon, the Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge had five business days to contest the results in Sevier County Chancery Court. They filed it Wednesday morning.

A number of complaints surfaced between the Nov. 6 vote and certification. The Mountain Press received several calls from people who said either they lived in the city but were not allowed to vote on the referendum, or they lived outside the city and the question appeared on their ballot. Sevier County Election Commission has confirmed it received four formal, written complaints on that issue and had additional calls or verbal complaints about it.

At the Election Commission meeting to certify the votes, Charles Rhodes, who doesn’t live in Pigeon Forge but called himself an “information gatherer” for the opponents, said he had compared a list of Pigeon Forge residents who voted in the election and a list of property owners allowed to vote under city law on the referendum, and determined that the total of those two groups added together was 2,061 — 303 less than the total votes cast on the referendum.

“The election commission has reported to us that it cannot be determined how many were actually for and against in the 2,061 voters that actually qualified to vote,” businessman Jess Davis, one of two new co-chairmen of the Concerned Churches and Citizens, said in prepared remarks.

“But because the state has given them no choice but to certify the election night tally with those 303 unqualified votes in that total, the only way our system allows for justice in this situation is to challenge it in a court of equity,” he said.

State and local officials have said the election commission can’t cast out those votes in determining whether to certify the results — their role is only to tabulate the votes. They said the only way to remove those votes would be for the opponents to file a successful contest of the election.

Two pastors who served as co-chairmen of the group stepped down from that position, and Davis, owner of the Biblical Times theater (formerly Tennessee Shindig) and Woodfire Grill, was chosen as one of the new chairmen.

The group voted unanimously at that point to contest the election.

“One person stated the sentiments of all when he said, ‘This is no longer just a liquor issue, it’s about voter rights and our very election process is at stake,’” Davis said in the prepared remarks.

Administrator of Elections Ronee Flynn said Wednesday her office is still investigating the issues Rhodes brought to light at the meeting.

“We can check further into it and that’s what we’re doing,” she said. They aren’t conducting a recount, she explained, but they are reviewing the paperwork for those who voted in the election.

She acknowledged it appeared possible that at least some of the votes came from people living outside the city but who had to vote at the Pigeon Forge polling place in the general election.

“There could be mistakes or just human error in a lot of them,” she said.

She said they hadn’t heard a complaint that a poll attendant was taking a position with voters until Rhodes made that assertion during the meeting Monday. Previous accusations about an attendant indicated a preference for one side in the referendum have been made.

“We don’t know the answer on that,” Flynn said.

Rhodes also said it appeared some people who voted as property owners did so improperly; election officials say they’re looking into that as well.

All of those complaints are outlined in the lawsuit. It is asking for the matter to be set for trial within 10 to 50 days after the complaint is served on the election commission.

State officials have indicated that, for the lawsuit to succeed, they will have to prove the questionable votes render the true outcome of the election “incurably uncertain,” and that typically requires them to bring into question a number of votes greater than the margin of victory.

The 303 votes the Concerned Churches and Citizens has questioned are more than three times the 100-vote margin, and represent about 13 percent of the total votes cast on the referendum.

jfarrell@themountainpress.com