By CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY (Associated Press)
GALLATIN, Tenn. (AP) — Shortly after being sworn in last fall, the new Sumner County Commission Majority in Tennessee moved to update one of its official documents. The new version stated that county operations would not only be orderly and efficient, but would “above all reflect the Judeo-Christian values inherent in the founding of the nation”.
It was a significant moment for the 14 commissioners who had campaigned under the banner of the Sumner County Constitutional Republicans. The group had waged a political war against fellow Republicans in the fast-growing region north of Nashville in a bitter primary just months before.
Since taking control, this majority has halted plans for a new building, rejected federal grants and sought to donate historic property, actions it said were consistent with its commitment to fiscal responsibility. . The group has also been embroiled in a growing feud with the county election commission.
Early moves were applauded by their supporters, but some Republicans and community members say the commissioners are operating outside political norms, inviting lawsuits and jeopardizing elections and other county operations.
“What’s happened here is the Sumner County Constitutional Conservative Republican group, they don’t believe in government,” said Baker Ring, a Republican who is in his fourth term on the county commission and is not aligned with the new majority. “They are opposed to the government. But now they are the government.
The tensions are similar to those unfolding in communities across the United States where conservative groups have fielded candidates for local office in recent years and have sometimes won majorities, upsetting the workings of local governments.
While their success in winning office has varied, the consequences when they do so become apparent in places like Sumner County, where they can wield power — like budgetary authority — that could have implications for the how elections are organised.
“If we don’t fund it, you can’t do it,” county commissioner Jeremy Mansfield told the electoral administrator and chairman of the electoral commission during a contentious meeting last fall.
In Sumner County, a 22% increase in population between 2010 and 2020 has resulted in an increased need for government services, including schools and teachers, while providing the local Constitutional Republican group with an opportunity to take the lead. power.
Eight Republican commissioners were defeated in the May 2022 primary by challengers aligned with Constitutional Republicans. It paved the way for the group to form a majority after a general election in August in which less than 15% of registered voters voted. Two property tax increases approved by the county commission over the past decade have been a key issue that has helped fuel the group’s rise.
When the county’s election administrator appeared before the commission last fall asking for money to pay election workers for the November midterm elections, the commissioners refused and pointed to the money that she still had in the bank.
Elections Administrator Lori Atchley continued to ask, warning the commission that it is operating in deficit because workers needed to be paid.
It was at that meeting that Mansfield, in his second term on the commission and a leading member of the Constitutional Republican Caucus, said that two weeks of early voting, as required by state law, “just seems excessive for this county”. When a fellow commissioner said the county would soon add voting centers — polling places where anyone in the county can vote — Mansfield replied, “Well, we can always change that too.”
Whether the county uses polling centers or has multiple early voting locations is up to the five state-appointed members of the County Elections Commission, which hires the local election administrator. But county commissioners control funding and newly elected Tories say the county’s election budget is larger than comparable counties and polling centers are hard to justify without evidence they will increase turnout.
The electoral office is also looking for money to complete its move to a larger building. The move is at the center of another dispute, with some of the new county commissioners claiming it was not properly authorized.
In March, county commissioners voted to force the electoral service out of the building. The Elections Commission responded by filing a lawsuit against the county, arguing that the dispute and forced motion “threaten the integrity of the 2024 election before a single vote has been cast.”
Mansfield said he would not describe elections in the United States as safe or trustworthy and he believes the local election administrator has contributed to an erosion of trust in the community. Among other things, he pointed to a recent misdemeanor citation issued to Atchley over a private property dispute unrelated to his job.
“Elections should be about integrity and trust,” he said.
Atchley referred questions about the lawsuit to the Elections Commission attorney and did not respond to a message seeking comment on Mansfield’s citation and criticism. Tom Lee, the electoral commission’s lawyer, said the members considered the citation a “private matter”.
No large-scale election problems were reported in the county.
Members of the Constitutional Republican group said the Elections Department was treated no differently than other county departments when asked to justify their budget requests.
“People want a small government and a government they can trust,” Mansfield said.
Elected to his first term last year, County Commissioner Wes Wynne is a Republican but not part of the new majority. He said he didn’t understand why there was so much animosity between the county commission and election officials. He offered a motion that presented a compromise on using the larger building, but said it had been ignored.
“So far our commission has done a fabulous job of grinding every ax they can find against people they don’t like,” he said.
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