Feb 13, 2023 - Politics

Tennessee bill would abolish local election runoffs

Illustration of the Tennessee State Capitol building with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Tennessee Republicans are backing a legislative proposal to end runoff elections for local offices.

Why it matters: The proposal could help Republicans win elections in left-leaning areas, like Davidson County. If there were eight candidates and six or seven were Democrats, they would divide the vote among themselves and a top GOP candidate might immediately get in.

  • But if there were a runoff, the GOP candidate would then have to go up against the top left-leaning candidate and probably get clobbered.
  • Metro elections are nonpartisan, but only Democrats hold countywide elected offices. In the first-ever partisan school board races last year, Democrats earned a clean sweep.

State of play: Two right-leaning candidates confirmed to Axios they are pondering a run. Alice Rolli, the former campaign manager for Sen. Lamar Alexander and economic development staffer for then-Gov. Bill Haslam's administration, says she's thinking of a run.

  • Rolli says that David Fox, runner-up in the 2015 mayor's race, will be her treasurer if she runs.
  • Former Vanderbilt professor and conservative commentator Carol Swain also says she's thinking of a run. Swain finished second in the 2018 mayoral general election. She finished third in 2019.
  • Incumbent Mayor John Cooper isn't running, and the other candidates in the race so far are businessman Jim Gingrich, Councilmember Sharon Hurt, Councilmember Freddie O'Connell and former city official Matt Wiltshire.

What he's saying: In a sign the proposal is gaining traction, Tennessee Republican Party chairman Scott Golden says he backs legislation sponsored by state Rep. Jason Zachary to abolish runoff elections in local races. Republicans have supermajority control of the legislature.

  • Golden says the vast majority of elections in Tennessee do not have runoffs, but local governments are currently able to require a runoff under their charters.
  • "This would get local races in line with the rest of the state," he says.

The other side: State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, tells Axios "the citizens of local governments should lead the way in how they elect their own leaders, and it would be irresponsible for the legislature to change the rules for upcoming elections."

Zoom out: The legislation is one of several Republican proposals that would affect Nashville.

Editor’s note: This story was corrected to show Carol Swain finished second in the 2018 (not 2019) mayoral election.

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