May 27, 2009
Tennessee Elections Nearly Out of Commission
The Tennessee House of Representatives signaled agreement today on a bill that will add two members to the Tennessee Election Commission, and thus avoided allowing the commission to expire out of existence. From Tom Humphrey, via Michael Silence:
House Democratic Leader Gary Odom told a party caucus meeting today that, after a round of discussions, he now recommends that Democrats go along with passage of HB845, which adds two Republicans to the State Election Commission. That will give the GOP control of the commission, which otherwise would remain with a 3-2 Democrat majority until 2011.
Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris had declared that, if Democrats continue to hold up approval of the bill, Senate Republicans will hold up passage of a bill to continue the existence of the Election Commission itself. The commission, as things stand now, will "sunset" on July 1 unless the Legislature votes to renew it.
As I'm sure you're aware, the State Election Commission appoints the members of all ninety-five county election commissions. You might also know that a long-standing state law provides the following: that whichever political party controls the Legislature determines the majority on each of these elections-overseeing bodies.
To wit, the Hamilton County Election Commission, like its Nashville parent body, comprised 3 Democrats and 2 Republicans for years, until the 2008 elections gave both houses of the General Assembly to the Republicans. Earlier this year, the members changed, and now there are 3 Republicans and 2 Democrats. Thanks to the Tennessean's Colby Sledge, I have learned that the state commission was more or less bound to be intact until 2011--that is, if no one pulled the plug on it altogether.
Here's a question: Why are election commissions defined in partisan terms anyway? I get that it matters when one or the other party controls the actual legislative bodies, and, to a slightly lesser degree, the administration; and I understand that there's a good chance that anyone interested in being a commissioner would likely have a personal party preference; but to spell out "there shall be one more of these than of those if these are in power in the House" and so forth seems wholly unnecessary in terms of selecting good, honest men and women to fill the role.
And here's the answer: The Tennessee Democratic Party, which did control the Legislature for generations, sought to extend its grip on power even further, and brought this partisan rule into existence. This occurred decades ago (citation needed, as the 'pedia says), but, as surely all but the most optimistic realized, the tables would eventually turn; and now they have.
The Republicans, for their part, are seeming just a little too eager to grab the electoral reins. Maybe they are hedging their bets against a possible loss in the 2010 elections. In that case, waiting until 2011 would do them no good. Maybe they're just tired of waiting.
It's all a little disturbing, though. Do them no good? What "good"? Why should either (no, make that any) political party expect an advantage to come out of the election commission?
And what if Democrats regain the lead, if not in 2010, then a few years later? Will two more members have to be added so that the spoils of war don't, well, spoil? This tug-of-war could go on for a long time, and get ever more ridiculous along the way.
As stated earlier, there are good (or at least arguable) reasons for certain elected positions to carry with them the backing of a political party that in turn represents a certain set of ideals. But remember: the goal of a political party is to win elections (even more so, as we are constantly reminded, than to forward said ideals). Is that who we want wrestling over the controls of democracy?
Perhaps it is time to revisit the basic function of the election commission, and to restore its austere task to a place far above partisan gamesmanship.
This idea of gaining power reminds me of another struggle: the separation of church and state. It can serve just as much as a protection of the church as of the state. Many politically inclined Christian conservatives want to bend it as much as possible, however, to mold the government and culture to their moral values. But what happens when another religion--or no religion--becomes the majority? They are setting a precedent they won't much like on the flip side.
Posted by: John Hawbaker at May 27, 2009 11:28 PM