300 votes questioned

Hundres of ballots in liquor referendum challenged at certification
Nov. 21, 2012 @ 11:00 PM

The Sevier County Election Commission certified the victory of the controversial liquor-by-the-drink referendum Monday along with other results from the Nov. 6 election, but acknowledged a complaint by an opponent of the referendum that it appears about 300 votes came from people who were neither residents nor property owners in the city.

Voters approved the referendum by a vote of 1,232 to 1,132, and the commission certified that total Monday afternoon. However, Charles Rhodes, who says he is acting as a “fact finder” for the group that opposed the referendum, told the commission he had discovered 303 votes that don’t appear to have come from people living inside the city or who own property in the city.

Under Pigeon Forge’s charter, people who own property inside the city can register to vote in municipal elections and Rhodes had election records showing 171 people exercised that right. The totals showed another 1,890 people who live inside the city voted in the election. That comes to a total of 2,061 votes — but the total number of votes recorded in the election was 2,364.

“How do we account for the 303 voters and not knowing if each individual voted for or against the liquor referendum, is there not a question the counts can be incorrect?” he asked the commission.

The referendum vote has been plagued by complaints that Pigeon Forge residents were denied the opportunity to vote and that people who did not live or own property in the city were allowed to vote. There have been at least four formal complaints filed by voters saying that either they live in the city, but the referendum didn’t appear on their ballots, or they live outside the city and had the opportunity to vote when they shouldn’t. Some have also said that an official at the polling place was taking a side on the referendum, which would be a violation of the official’s oath.

Rhodes also touched on the question of improper behavior by an election official, saying a poll attendant voted himself for some voters, and he said it appeared that in some cases property owners voted improperly because more than two property owners cited the same piece of property as their basis for participating. Under the governing law, Rhodes said, no more than two owners of any property are supposed to vote.

Commissioners said they wanted to investigate Rhodes’s questions and didn’t try to offer any answers Monday, but they said their role in certifying the election was to make sure the total votes cast were correctly counted.

While officials are investigating the complaints, all they can do is make sure the same mistakes don’t happen again in the future. State officials have also said it’s not their role to overturn the election because of the complaints. In the case of people who knowingly voted on the referendum when they weren’t eligible, officials said they could take the information to the district attorney general’s office and it could lead to prosecution for voter fraud.

To have the election tossed out, the opponents would have to file a lawsuit to contest the election in Sevier County Chancery Court within the next five business days. To stop the state from moving ahead in the process of issuing liquor licenses to eligible businesses, they would also need to obtain a temporary injunction.

If they file the contest, they would eventually need to prove there are enough questions about whether the election followed proper procedures to make the real outcome “incurably uncertain,” in the words of Mark Goins, state coordinator of elections. For this purpose, that would likely mean proving that more than 100 voters were improperly denied or allowed the chance to vote in the referendum.

Rhodes said it wasn’t clear Monday if his organization, the Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge, would contest the election.

Out of about a dozen people who signed in to observe the certification, only one other said he was with the Concerned Churches and Citizens. Most of the others signed in as representatives of Forging Ahead, the group that campaigned in favor of the measure.

One of that group’s members, Ken Maples, spoke briefly to thank election officials for their work.

There were no issues mentioned with the other elections on the ballot.