Partisan Knives Sharpen

Partisan Knives Sharpen

Misinformation becomes a weapon as early voting ends and a bruising city election enters its final days.

by scott barker • October 28, 2021

With early voting in the city election ending today and Election Day arriving in five days, the campaigns are heating up and facts are becoming casualties.

Early voting in the city election comes to a close today.

The five City Council incumbents are trying to fend off potentially strong challenges from candidates backed by the Knox County Republican Party in an unusually partisan-tinged nonpartisan election. The five races appear to be much closer than recent elections involving incumbents.

The GOP-backed challengers — Elizabeth Murphy (1st District), Kim Smith (2nd), Nick Ciparro (3rd), Jim Klonaris (4th) and Garrett Holt (6th) — are running coordinated campaigns focused on public safety as the leading issue, and they hit the same talking points in public appearances. 

Though not coordinating their efforts to the same extent, the incumbents — Tommy Smith (1st District), Andrew Roberto (2nd), Seema Singh (3rd), Lauren Rider (4th) and Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie (6th) — tout their experience and are running on their records on a broader array of issues.

Under the city charter, Knoxville elections are nonpartisan affairs. Previous officeholders, from former Mayors Victor Ashe and Bill Haslam (both Republicans) to former Mayor Madeline Rogero (a Democrat) have honored that ideal. 

This year, however, the Knox County Republican Party has made electing GOP candidates a priority.

The local GOP has been funding anti-incumbent flyers that have arrived with regularity in voters’ mailboxes as the election enters its last days. Some of them contain misleading information that has drawn criticism from incumbents and their Democratic allies.

The most striking example is a flyer the Republican Party sent out this week urging people to vote. “Only ONE person can stop the madness,” the flyer stated before listing the hours polls are open on Election Day, Nov. 2.

The flyer incorrectly asserted the polls would be open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Election Day voting is, and has been for years, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

“Every single election is 8-to-8, period,” said Knox County Elections Administrator Chris Davis. “I don’t know how that can be misconstrued.”

Davis said trimming two hours off the voting window, particularly at the end of the day, raises concerns that people won’t go to the polls because they think voting has ended.

“I don’t like misinformation because it makes my job more difficult,” he said.

Knox County Republican Party Chair Daniel Herrera did not respond to messages seeking comment clarifying whether the statement was intentionally or accidentally misleading.  

C.J. Butcher, vice chair of the Knox County Democratic Party, said that in one sense it doesn’t really matter. “It’s certainly misleading,” he said. “When you are sending stuff out there, you need to make sure it’s correct.”

Democratic Party officials are looking into whether the misleading information amounts to attempted voter suppression, since many Democrats received the mailer and it could lead to voters mistakenly believing polls were closed when they were still open, Butcher said.

The GOP also bungled a media report included in another recent mailer on homelessness issues. The mailer took three paragraphs from a Compass article and topped them with an unattributed quote that did not appear in the story. The quote was from Knoxville Police Department Public Information Officer Scott Erland and was originally published in a News Sentinel article. The entire passage was cited as a Compass article, however.

Butcher said the GOP’s unprecedented involvement in a nonpartisan city election has forced Democrats to respond in kind. Though the Democratic Party has not formally endorsed the incumbents, officials have attempted to correct what they perceive as Republican misinformation.

“They’ve turned this into an extremely partisan mudslinging campaign,” Butcher said of the local GOP. 

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, a Democrat, has endorsed the incumbents on her campaign Facebook page. The challengers have in many cases tried to make the election a referendum on her leadership. 

A post to the city’s official Facebook page appears to tacitly endorse the incumbents in a get-out-the-vote message.

“Your vote matters and helps the City accomplish great things to benefit residents,” the post states.  

Included are graphs that show a downward trend in property tax rates and debt obligations in recent years, as well as an increase in private-sector investments in high-dollar projects.

The incumbents have cited those rosy economic measures to counter accusations from their challengers that the city is in decline. Roberto, the 2nd District incumbent, issued a video using some of those talking points to refute what he called “slimy Washington politics.”

Eric Vreeland, deputy communications director for the city of Knoxville, said the post isn’t an endorsement of any candidate and emphasized that no candidates were mentioned by name.

“During the past year, some misinformation about the City's financial health has circulated on social media — factually wrong statements, such as assertions that the City's tax rates and debt are out of control, or that private investment isn't happening in the city. Nothing could be more untrue,” he said.

“The City isn't making any recommendations to voters of who they should vote for, but we do want robust civic engagement, and we do want voters to have access to credible information,” Vreeland said.