I pulled the March 13 edition of this newspaper out of its slot under my mailbox and, as I often do, struggled to read the headlines through the plastic wrapper. These two words jumped out at me: DEMOCRATS NEEDED.
Wow. My mind raced in all kinds of different directions. I slipped the wrapper off the paper and unrolled it. The full headline? “Democrats needed to work May primary.” Ah-ha. Now it made sense. I’ve been working part-time for the Putnam County Election Commission for several years, first as a poll worker and more recently at the election office during early voting. I like to think they keep me on because I’m a conscientious worker, but I know there’s another reason. I’m a Democrat. Because the number of election workers is supposed to be balanced as nearly as possible between the two political parties, I’m a rare commodity.
That wasn’t always true. Until the 1960s, Republicans struggled to get a foothold all over the South. Not so any more.
Take the upcoming May 1 Putnam County primary election for example. On the Republican ballot, all seven countywide offices—County Executive, Sheriff, Trustee, Circuit Court Clerk, County Clerk, Register of Deeds and Road Supervisor—have at least one candidate. Ditto for all twelve county commission districts. On the Democratic ballot, only one countywide office—Register of Deeds—has a candidate. Ten of the county commission districts, with districts 8 and 11 being the exceptions, have no Democratic candidate at all. Districts 8 and 11 have only one each.
Which just might lead Democratic voters here to wonder if they should skip this election altogether. Not necessarily. Tennessee law permits voters to cross party lines in a primary election. So if you’re a Democrat but want a say-so in which Republican candidates running for Circuit Court Clerk, Road Supervisor, or county commission in districts 5, 7, and 11 will appear on the ballot in the August 2 county general election, you’re free to vote in the Republican primary if you choose.
Because Tennessee citizens don’t declare a political party when registering to vote, it’s a voter’s history in choosing a party primary that qualifies him or her as a Democrat or Republican for the purpose of being hired as an election worker in Putnam County. To be considered a member of a certain party, you must have voted in that party’s primary in two out of the past four elections.
The good news is that the Herald-Citizen’s “Democrats needed” article got results. “We’ve had lots of people coming in to apply to work on Election Day, including Democrats,” Putnam Election Administrator Debbie Steidl told me. “I don’t feel nearly as pushed as I do some years. But we’re still accepting applications. We’ve got more than 200 slots to fill on May 1, and we’re always tickled to find folks who are willing to work.”
(March 25, 2018)