County not holding primary election for first time in 30 years

By Julie Fann
star staff

For the first year since 1972, the Carter County Republican and Democratic parties will not be holding a primary election. Normally, voters go to the polls on the second Tuesday in May during an election year to vote for local officials. Last week, many people, most of them elderly, went to the polls to vote early only to be told that there isn't going to be a primary election.
   "I've had to explain it to them. A lot of them said they saw on the news that the last day to early vote for area counties was Wednesday," Tracy Harris, director of the Carter County Election Commission, said. The Elizabethton Star, on March 24, published in its display section an advertisement purchased by the Election Commission notifying the public of the August 1 General Election. However, no mention was made in the advertisement concerning the absence of a primary election.
   The Tennessee County Government Handbook states, "It is the responsibility of the County Election Commission to publish in a newspaper of general circulation for the county a notice of all elections at least ten days before the qualifying deadline," which is May 16 for the August General Election. However, the handbook makes no mention of requirements to notify the public if parties choose not to have a primary election.
   Carter County Republican Party Chairman Luther McKeehan said the decision not to have a primary election was due to two factors. "For the last election or two, we've had people run in the primary election and not get the vote, so they turn around and run as an Independent, or they try to get written in on the ballot," he said. It is against county election rules for a candidate to switch parties in the midst of an election. McKeehan said funds for a primary were also an issue. "It costs approximately $30,000 to hold a primary election, and we were struggling to find that money," McKeehan said.
   Carter County Executive Truman Clark said the money normally budgeted for the primary election was used to pay to get the Wheel Tax referendum on the Nov. 6, 2001 ballot. Harris confirmed the Carter County Commission directed the Election Commission to spend $21,111.08 for the Wheel Tax referendum. "We didn't budget for a primary because the wheel tax referendum was given to us unexpectedly. If the parties had decided to have a primary election, though, we would be required to have one by law. We could have amended the budget and had a primary," Harris said.
   The Executive Committees of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party must each vote not to have a primary election. The alternative to having a primary election is for each party to hold a separate Convention, a meeting of the Executive Committees and any Republican or Democratic citizen. At the Convention, nominations for candidates are put on the ballot to run in the general election. "We (the Republican Party) didn't vote to have a Convention either. I feel like people around here know each other's politics. It will be a test, definitely, but I think it will go well," McKeehan said.
   Since the Republican Party voted not to have a primary election or hold a Convention, all Republican candidates will run as Independents in the general election. "That's how I got elected in 1970," McKeehan said. McKeehan said the only thing that bothers him about so many candidates running in the general election is the splitting of votes. "With so many people running for one office, a person can easily win with just a few votes," he said.
   Carter County Democratic Party Chairman John Fetzer said he approached McKeehan about not having a primary election. "I said, Luther, you people have been having primaries, and in the past, some of your people, the highest vote-getters, have been running against your nominees, and sometimes defeating them. And I said it's very costly to have a primary, so why don't we just dispense with it this year," stated Fetzer. Unlike the Republican Party, the Democratic Party decided to hold a Convention. Because of that, at the upcoming general election, Democratic nominees will be listed as such on the ballot.
   Fetzer said he believes Republicans are opposed to having a primary because they don't want their candidates to turn around and run as Democrats in the general election. "But either way, they get defeated in the primary, so what does it matter?" he said. He believes not having a primary election opposes the ideals of the founding fathers. "Jefferson and Adams are the ones who created the two-party system specifically so that what is happening here wouldn't," he said.