It’s a decision currently before the Board and Mayor and Aldermen and a topic of discussion during a work session on Monday afternoon.
A bill passed in the Tennessee General Assembly back in 2010 allows municipalities to move their election day to either August (primary election day) or November (national election day). Prior to the passage of this bill, the only way municipalities could change their election day was through a private act.
“If it’s not working for you, you can change it back. But you can only do so once,” explained Sullivan County Election Commissioner Jason Booher, who attended Monday’s work session and offered city leaders information about the law, along with the pros and cons of making the change.
Booher said 81 percent of Tennessee cities hold elections in August or November of even years, while 61 cities have stand-alone elections (23 of which are held in May like Kingsport’s). Since the adoption of the 2010 law, 21 cities have moved their election day to August or November.
Locally, Johnson City and Bristol already have moved their election dates, and Bluff City is planning on a similar change, Booher said.
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.
Reasons for making such a change would be to increase voter turnout (likely by 35 to 55 percent, Booher said) and save money. Municipal elections cost Kingsport between $24,000 and $28,000 each time they are held, Booher said.
Some concerns about moving Kingsport’s election day include a lengthy ballot, voter confusion, partisan versus non-partisan races and voter fatigue. At least locally, the November ballot is not as lengthy as the August ballot, Booher said, since most of the contested races take place on primary day.
Voters being confused may be an issue with the first election after a change, but any change is problematic, Booher said, noting that if Kingsport were to move its election day, then the sooner the better in order to give the public enough time to know a change has happened.
“Johnson City moved their election date to November and I’ve not heard any major issues,” Booher said.
Alderwoman Colette George appeared to oppose moving election day, saying she’s heard some concerns out of Johnson City.
“When the only thing people are voting on are city items and issues, then those voters who vote actually know where we stand, what we support and about the city of Kingsport,” George said.
Booher said he believes Johnson City hasn’t had enough elections under the change to have any sort of benchmark
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.
Mayor Pat Shull, who said he is leaning toward the change, proposed for his fellow aldermen to think the issue over and tell City Manager Chris McCartt their thoughts. Shull also suggested McCartt speak with Director of Schools Dr. Jeff Moorhouse and get the board of education’s feedback on the issue.