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Clerk says she was unaware of election law change

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Bedford County's clerk said a change in state election law resulted in a long standing practice in her office becoming illegal without her knowledge.

County Clerk Kathy Prater told the T-G this week she was unaware that allowing candidates -- including one of her own employees -- to leave business cards in the office's public area was illegal until she was informed by Administrator of Elections Summer Leverette the day before the Aug. 7 election.

In 2002, Tennessee state law was changed to permit voter registration though other state agencies, such as the county clerk's office. One of the prohibited acts by a registering agency is to "display any such political preference or party allegiance."

In a certified letter to the Times-Gazette last week, B.J. Locke-Atkins claimed she had visited the clerk's office on May 6 and saw campaign material for incumbent school board member Dixie Parker, who works in the county clerk's office, on the counter.

Parker won the election by a vote of 370-216 over challenger Robert Allison in the District 1 School Board race.

"I had politely stated, in the spirit of fair-mindedness to the other candidate, what they were doing was improper and probably not legal," Locke-Atkins wrote. "Three months passed and my complaint fell on deaf ears."

Locke-Atkins brought the issue to the attention of the Times-Gazette on Aug. 6, the afternoon prior to the election, though she stated in her letter that she had known about the offense for months. She did not indicate why she waited so long to call the offense to the attention of the T-G.

Locke-Atkins wrote that Prater's office "had violated state laws by allowing an incumbent School Board member to campaign and place placards on their equipment for public exposure."

However, the county election commission and Prater said they were not aware of any violation of the law until the day before the Aug. 7 election following a call from the state election commission.

Leverette said that Locke-Atkins never called her personally until Aug. 6, after the state election commission contacted her about the matter that day. Leverette said she had "no knowledge of it until then."

"The state told me that she (Locke-Atkins) called with a complaint and that I should go over there and tell Kathy that she could not be doing that," Leverette said.

Kathy Summers of the state election commission confirmed that she called Leverette on Aug. 6 and told her to go to Prater's office about the violation.

Leverette said the only thing she saw in the office "were campaign cards. There were no placards on the computers, there were no 'vote for Dixie' signs, there was none of that. Just cards -- which is not right, she (Prater) shouldn't have been doing that."

Prater told the T-G that she has always allowed candidates to place their cards in her office since she became county clerk 18 years ago.

"Everybody has put cards up here," Prater said. "If there were seven people running for one office, we'd have seven cards. That's not just this office. Every office up here has done that."

She recalled that a lady had come to her offices several months ago and while Prater said she did not speak with the woman, one of Prater's clerks told her that "a lady had been complaining about Dixie having some cards out in the window."

"I said (to the clerk) 'did you tell her that Mr. Allison is more than welcome to bring his cards up here too?' and she said that she had," Prater said. "There wasn't anything mentioned to me about it being illegal or anything like that."

Prater said she didn't think she was doing anything wrong and heard nothing else about the matter until the day before the election when Leverette came to her office and said there had been a complaint from the state election commission.

When Leverette explained the law, Prater said "no problem" and removed them all, the county clerk said. She also checked the other offices nearby to make sure there were no cards, Prater said.

"We've been doing it (allowing the cards) for 18 years."

Since that time, Prater said she learned about the change in the law made in 2002 allowing people to register to vote in her office.

"It's not always been that way, but you can now turn in a registration to vote here, to the Register of Deeds office ... I am assuming that is when the law changed ... when we became a registering agency." Prater said she informed the other offices of the change in the law so that no other violations would occur.

Leverette said that when Locke-Atkins asked her why nothing had been done about the issue earlier, Leverette replied, "Ma'am, I wasn't aware of anything, you didn't contact me, you contacted the state ... I didn't know until you contacted the state."

Prater also had a closing statement on the matter.

"If it were truly about 'did I do something I wasn't suppose to do?' ... was I aware of it? No, I was not. But the thing I'd like to say is -- if this was all about getting the cards out of the window and telling me I had done something wrong, it would have been nice to have gotten that from the election commission that day (of the original complaint), and it wouldn't have looked so orchestrated to come out a day before the election."

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