Setting the Stage
Today’s city primary will winnow the field of City Council hopefuls in advance of the November general election.
Primary Election Day has arrived in Knoxville, with voters choosing the two candidates from each of five City Council districts who will move on to the Nov. 2 general election.
Polls are open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Districts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 will be on the ballot, while the 5th District seat is not included in this election cycle. Polls in precincts in the five contested districts will be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Election information, including polling locations and a sample ballot, can be found here.)
Turnout in this cycle, which doesn’t include a mayoral election, is typically light, especially in a year when incumbents are running for reelection. This year is shaping up to be an exception.
According to the Knox County Election Commission, 5,577 people cast ballots during the two-week early voting period that concluded last Thursday. Another 758 people sent in absentee ballots, voted from nursing homes or cast votes as property-qualified voters.
A total of 6,335 people have voted so far. In 2017, the last time these particular seats were contested, the total number of voters for the entire primary election was 7,141.
“I think it indicates to me that we should have a better turnout than in 2017,” said Chris Davis, administrator of elections for Knox County.
Still, turnout promises to be low compared to the number of registered voters. Early voting tends to account for at least half the overall turnout, which would project an overall turnout of around 14,000. Davis said the five districts involved in this year’s election have a combined pool of about 90,000 voters.
The reason for the surge in turnout appears to be greater and more organized competition. All five incumbents are running, plus the progressive City Council Movement has candidates in three races, while the Knox County Republican Party is backing hopefuls in all five contests.
Davis said the highly competitive 4th District race — featuring incumbent Lauren Rider, conservative Jim Klonaris and City Council Movement candidate Jen McMahon — is driving a lot of the turnout.
Though voters could cast ballots at any early voting location, the heaviest volume was seen at New Harvest Park, which is in the 4th District in North Knoxville. For the first time ever, Downtown West was not the busiest early voting location.
Election Day turnout is harder to predict, however. Rain is in the forecast, and 24 of the 43 polling places are in school facilities, where parking can be an issue.
“That’s my biggest concern,” Davis said.
The Election Commission recommends wearing masks and practicing social distancing, but Davis said officials cannot place COVID-19 mitigation mandates on voters.
However, there will be an alternate polling site for voters who have tested positive for or have symptoms of COVID-19, or those who are in quarantine. The Election Commission has established a three-step process for these voters:
First, they must call the Election Commission, which is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., at 865-215-2480 to provide information, including their full name, date of birth, and address. This information is needed so election officials can determine their voting status and can prepare the necessary paperwork and the voter’s ballot.
Second, these voters must go to the Knox County Health Department at 140 Dameron Ave. in North Knoxville to cast their ballots. People must contact the Election Commission first in order to vote at KCHD.
Third, staff from KCHD and election workers will assist voters in the casting of their ballots, following COVID-19 safety precautions and processes.
City Council races are district-only elections in the primary, so each voter will have one race on their ballot — the district where they are registered. Voters in the 5th District, which consists of much of North Knoxville west of Broadway, cannot vote in the primary. All voters, including those from the 5th District, can cast ballots in all races in the general election.
The races on the primary ballot are:
There are three candidates in the 1st District, which includes South Knoxville and Fort Sanders, and only two will advance. The incumbent is Tommy Smith, who was appointed to the seat last year to fill the unexpired term of Stephanie Welch after she resigned to become the city’s chief economic and community development officer. The conservative option is Elizabeth Murphy, while City Council Movement stalwart David Hayes, who ran for an at-large seat in 2019, is the progressive candidate.
Voters in the West Knoxville district along Kingston Pike have two candidates to choose from, and both will go on to the general election. Incumbent Andrew Roberto is facing a challenge from newcomer Kim Smith, who is running as a fiscal conservative.
Another race featuring just two hopefuls is the 3rd District, which runs along either side of Western Avenue in Northwest Knoxville. Both incumbent Seema Singh and challenger Nick Ciparro will go on to the general election.
The 4th District runs from the edge of downtown north along the east side of Broadway to Fountain City, then curves east to the Alice Bell-Spring Hill area to Holston Hills, with a finger extending out to Strawberry Plains. As with the 1st District candidates, Rider, Klonaris and McMahon offer voters a clear choice along the ideological spectrum.
Three candidates are vying for the seat representing Knoxville’s most diverse political subdivision, and only two will survive the primary. The 6th District includes East Knoxville, downtown, Mechanicsville, Marble City and part of Pond Gap. Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie is the incumbent, and the challengers are City Council Movement candidate Deidra Harper and conservative Garrett Holt.