Liquor by the drink vote: Property-voter laws explained

Pigeon Forge not only city in Tennessee that allows it
Feb. 25, 2013 @ 12:03 AM

Questions continue to come in to The Mountain Press about the issue of nonresident property owners having the right to vote in city elections.

That was one of several issues brought up by the anti-liquor campaign group, Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge, when it filed a lawsuit contesting the results of the November election.

CCCPF would ultimately convince Chancellor Telford Forgety to order a new election after election officials acknowledged that 300 ineligible voters cast ballots in that election. However, the ruling didn’t touch on questions CCCPF raised about the property owners.

Many readers who have contacted The Mountain Press are shocked that state law allows nonresident property owners to vote in a municipal election.

While it’s typical to only allow a voter to cast ballots in the area where they live, a 2008 article published by the National Conference of State Legislatures indicates Tennessee was one of at least 10 states where nonresident property owners could vote. The same article indicates it’s typical for states that allow such votes to delegate the decision making to cities, which is what the state of Tennessee has done.

Pigeon Forge is not the only local city that provides for nonresident property owner voting rights. Gatlinburg, Sevierville, Morristown, Maryville, Alcoa and Knoxville are among the others.

State law says that no more than two owners of a piece of property can vote. But because the state law cedes the authority to cities, local governments have the opportunity to add restrictions, including setting a minimum percentage of interest that a property owner must have before registering to vote.

“The charter could specify a minimal percentage of interest required in the property and/or a minimal assessed valuation of the property,” Blake Fontenay, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of State, explained.

Pigeon Forge City Manager Earlene Teaster said the city had not considered adding that requirement. Property owner voting rights had not been an issue before the November election, she said. “To my knowledge, it’s never been mentioned before. There’s never been any controversy.”

In Pigeon Forge’s case, a change would actually require action by the Legislature, as well. The city uses a city manager-commission charter, so making changes to the charter would require an amendment to that law.

It is possible for cities to make amendments that only apply to them and not to other cities, Teaster said, but it requires action by the state as well as the city.

While the state law itself does not include a minimum size property that can be included, a state attorney general’s opinion does, according to Fontenay. “Although there is not a specified minimum size for a tract of property, the property must be of a size on which a building can be erected,” he said.

That means a cemetery plot, for example, can’t be used as property for purposes of registering.

When more than two people share interest in a piece of property, the election commission should only allow the first two to register on that property to vote, Fontenay added.

“Typically, it is the first two people who register to vote on the property. However, before the registration period ends, a property owner can request that his or her name be removed in order to allow a different property owner to register and vote on the property.”

However, law would allow for a person who owns property in Gatlinburg, Sevierville and Pigeon Forge to vote in all three municipal elections this May, Fontenay said — provided the person was properly registered to vote in all three.

If the cities were voting on an issue that extended beyond their boundary, nonresident property owners should be given a “city-only” ballot, which would only include the local issues from within that city, he explained.

When it comes to county, state or federal issues, the voter should get only one chance to vote — at the voting precinct where they are registered as a resident.

Readers have also questioned whether state law prevents property owners from transferring interest in property for the sole purpose of allowing a person to vote using a piece of property. Apparently not.

Fontenay indicated it’s not prohibited in state law, and Sevier County Register of Deeds Sherry Robertson Huskey said there’s nothing to prohibit the property owners from transferring interest back and forth over a short period of time, or from doing so without transferring funds.

CCCPF filed a formal request with the election commission asking to challenge the ballots of voters who had obtained a minimal interest in property at no cost or for a small amount of money — the group they call “1 percenters.”

In the complaint, the group claims that would be a violation of state laws dealing with bribery of voters. However, Administrator of Elections Ronee Flynn said Friday the commission did not plan to comply with the request.

After talking to state officials and commissioners, she said the 1 percent votes appear to comply with the law.

“That’s how the charter reads; it’s the law,” she said.

Election officials seem to have resolved some of the issues raised by CCCPF in the lawsuit.

People who appeared to have used the same address on the election commission list were actually condo owners — while they might have had the same address, they owned different units within the same building. There were several people who owned property in areas where no street number had been assigned.

n jfarrell@themountainpress.com