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Kingsport leaders not enthused about moving election day

Matthew Lane • May 5, 2020 at 9:00 AM

KINGSPORT — A majority of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen isn’t exactly gung-ho on moving Kingsport's election day to coincide with the national elections, according to comments made during a Monday afternoon work session.

And even if the board agrees to a move, there's no consensus at this time on whether the new election day should be held in August or November.

Ultimately, it's a decision city leaders will likely make later this year, with Mayor Pat Shull saying he prefers to vote on the matter once the public is able to attend a BMA meeting.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Kingsport's city election is held in May of an odd year, every two years with four of seven seats on the ballot — the mayor and three aldermen. The proposal being considered is to move Kingsport's election day to either August (primary election day) or November (national election day) on an even year.

Kingsport's next municipal election is scheduled for May 18, 2021. If the BMA approves the change, election day would then be held on Aug. 4, 2022, or Nov. 8, 2022, and then every two years thereafter. Essentially, the change would extend the term of office of all current incumbents by 15 to 18 months.

A bill passed in the Tennessee General Assembly in 2010 allows municipalities to move their election day, with an option to change it back one time. Prior to the passage of this bill, the only way municipalities could change their election day was through a private act.

Sullivan County Election Commissioner Jason Booher came before the BMA two months ago with information about the law, along with the pros and cons of making the change. The BMA again discussed the issue on Monday during its work session, with Booher dialed in via the internet.

STATISTICS ON THE ISSUE

Booher said on Monday that making the change would increase voter turnout (likely by 29 percent to 35 percent) and save money. Holding an election for just Kingsport would cost the Model City roughly $33,000 to $36,000. Booher noted that 81 percent of the municipalities hold elections in either August or November.

Since the adoption of the 2010 law, 21 cities have moved their election day to August or November, and locally, Johnson City and Bristol already have moved their election dates, and Bluff City is planning on a similar change, Booher said.

If the BMA were to agree on changing election day it would be done so by ordinance and take two readings before the board. Such a change would also change election day for the Kingsport Board of Education.

HOW THE BMA STANDS

Some concerns about moving Kingsport's election day include a lengthy ballot, voter confusion, partisan versus non-partisan races and voter fatigue. During Monday's work session, a majority of the BMA made comments in support of leaving Kingsport's election day alone.

Here is what each alderman had to say about the issue:

Mayor Pat Shull — “My personal preference is November. ... I'm willing to give it a try.”

Shull also showed his fellow aldermen a four-page ballot from August 2014 and noted this would be a similar ballot every eight years. Booher admitted there are 24 races on the 2022 ballet, noting there would be fewer races on the November ballot.

Vice-Mayor Colette George — “I would love to be able to leave the election in May. Turnout is very much local and about us. If we move to November, you're sworn in by December and immediately start with the budget. There's a learning curve and when we start in June, we've got six months before we hit the budget.”

Alderwoman Jennifer Adler — “If I had a preference I'd leave things where they are. Personally, I think August is the better option (if Kingsport changes), especially for folks with kids. Learning about issues is easier for them in August than in November.”

Alderwoman Betsy Cooper — “I don't have a strong preference either way. I see the advantage of November because of the shorter ballot, but there's also the disadvantage of folks voting for president with no idea of the city offices.”

Alderman Darrell Duncan — “You potentially get more turnout in August or November, but not necessarily a better quality voter than in May. My thinking is November because the ballot being shorter.”

Alderman Tommy Olterman — “I've given it some thought and this time I'm going to go with the majority. I'm going to stay quiet and how the majority votes, that's how I'm going to vote. I can see all sides of it.”

Alderman James Phillips — “I can see the pros and cons to both. If it was up to me, I don't think we'd move it. I'm not totally sold on moving it. It's important we have educated voters who know what they're voting on.”

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