The Election Commission voted 3-1 on Wednesday morning against holding a runoff election in the District 9 City Council race won by six votes by former Councilman Yusuf Hakeem.
Incumbent Peter Murphy was expected to file an immediate lawsuit based on the fact that Mr. Hakeem did not get more than 50 percent of the vote if seven write-in votes were counted.
The panel agreed to accept five of the write-ins, but not two with no names. That would move Mr. Hakeem to above 50 percent from the 49.
8 percent when all seven write-ins are counted.
Voting in favor of the motion were Tommy Crangle, Ruth Braly and James Anderson. Jerry Summers argued for the holding of a runoff. Chairman Mike Walden spoke against accepting the write-in ballots, but did not vote since there was not a tie.
The runoff date is April 9 - less than a month away. Currently, the only runoff scheduled is in District 4 between Jack Benson and Larry Grohn.
The write-in votes were for Andrae McCary (apparently meaning McGary), Moses Freeman, Melony Collins, Michael Dwayne Davenport and JJ. Two people darkened the write-in circle, but did not write in a name.
Attorney Stuart James argued for the runoff and attorney Hal North opposed it during a lengthy commission meeting. Mr. Murphy, who is an attorney, also spoke several times. Mr. Hakeem was present, but did not speak. Attorney Rick Hitchcock was also present with Mr. Hakeem.
Attorney James and Mr. Murphy said Chattanooga elections were molded by the federal Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation case that led to the district system. Attorney James said that put a "heightened standard" on city elections.
He said those who cast write-in ballots were "expressing their right of free speech" and may have been casting protest votes saying they did not like either candidate.
Attorney North, who formerly served on the Election Commission, said the members "should not leave behind your common sense." He said, "Yusuf Hakeem won the election on March 5 by six votes. It was a two-candidate race. It was not a JJ race."
He said the city charter does not define write-in votes so state law prevails. He said a section of state law says a vote cannot be counted when it is not possible to discern who the vote was cast for. He said that rules out the two blank votes. Mr. Summers countered that those were "protest votes" under the First Amendment.
Mr. Summers, the former election panel attorney, made a motion to accept all the write-ins and have a runoff, but he did not get a second.
Mr. Anderson, who is also a lawyer, made a motion to not accept any of the write-ins. That did not get a second.
Mr. Crangle then made the motion that eventually passed with a second from Mr. Anderson.
Attorney James said write-in votes "have been reported in every election I have voted in in Hamilton County over the past 20 years."
He said the fact that, with the write-ins, there is no majority "is something wonderful. It gives the voters another bite at the apple."
Chairman Walden said the panel "has never counted write-in votes unless they are for a legitimate, validated write-in candidate."
He said if there is a runoff under the same rules "how would you prevent a repeat of this?" He said he would expect "that next time we would have 50 people vote for unknown candidates just for the fun ot it" and again block a majority.
Mr. Summers said, "We approved this ballot. That's what the voters relied on. We led voters to believe they can write in names."
Election Commission Attorney Chris Clem said it is possible to exclude write-in votes in a runoff and just have the candidates go head-to-head.
Mr. Murphy told the panel, "You've got to count all the votes cast under the federal court order."
Attorney North said the city has not been under the federal court order "for 20 years."
He cited a Missouri case in which a judge declined to count 64 write-in votes because they "failed to express a preference for a valid, declared candidate."
Attorney North said if there is a runoff "we'll be the butt of jokes by late-night TV talk show hosts saying we're counting votes for nobody."
Election Commission members, clockwise from top left, are James Anderson, Jerry Summers, Mike Walden (at head of table), Tommy Crangle and Ruth Braly. Attorney Chris Clem is between Mr. Summers and Mr. Walden.