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Civics 101: You vote where you live

J. H. Osborne • May 27, 2019 at 6:00 PM

Kingsport, Bluff City and Bristol had municipal government elections last week. The ballots included members of the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen, the Bluff City Board of Mayor and Aldermen, the Bristol Tennessee City Council, seats on the Kingsport Board of Education and seats on the Bristol Tennessee Board of Education.

City elections are no different than other elections in a representative form of government: the people being represented are the ones eligible to cast ballots (if they’re properly registered). Want to vote for Congress? You’re eligible to vote in the race for the congressional seat representing the district where you live. Want to vote in a particular county commissioner district race? Better live in that district.

Some Sullivan County residents apparently pushed back against this standard in voting during the recent city elections, at least in Kingsport.

When the Times News published an advance story on the city’s election last week, several county residents complained in online comments that it isn’t fair they don’t get to vote in city elections. After all, they said, decisions by city officials have an impact on the whole county.

Some said they had actually gone to the polls and tried to cast city ballots, only to be turned away because they don’t live in the city. One elected county official told a Times News reporter she owned property in the city, so she should have a right to vote in city elections.

On Election Day, the Times News was told a handful of county residents had tried to vote at the Kingsport Civic Auditorium, but were turned away because only city residents are eligible to vote in a city election.

A quick look at the Sullivan County Election Commission’s Facebook page shows the problem required a response. It is copied below.

“The facts regarding municipal election voter eligibility are:

1. You must legally reside within the city limits to be eligible to vote. In other words, where you ‘live.’

2. ‘Paying property taxes to the city’ does not determine voter eligibility in Bluff City, Bristol, or Kingsport. Property taxes are assessed on the real property, not the resident. The owner of the property is responsible for the payment of the taxes, but paying the taxes is not the determining factor for eligibility to vote. For example, residents that rent or otherwise reside on property who are not the owners are not responsible for the payment of property taxes, but if they reside there they are eligible city voters.

3. The ‘city address’ or ‘zip code’ of property does not determine municipal election voting eligibility. A mailing address is just that, a mailing address. Thousands of residents have a mailing address of Bluff City, Bristol, and Kingsport who do reside in a city. However, there are many residents of a city with a Blountville, Piney Flats, and Fall Branch mailing address who reside inside the city limits of Bluff City, Bristol, and Kingsport. In fact, there are several residents of the city of Bristol whose mailing address is Bluff City.

4. Paying sales or use tax to a business located in a city does not determine municipal election voting eligibility. In fact, state law requires most sales and use taxes to be shared with other governmental entities. The city does not ‘keep’ all sales or use taxes.

5. All voter registration numbers referenced by the election commission include only those who reside in and are therefore eligible to vote in a municipal election.”

Kingsport City Manager Jeff Fleming commented on the Election Commission’s post, offering kudos for a well-written explanation.

“As a student of geography and political science, it saddens me that you are still having to explain this in 2019,” Fleming wrote. “Back in my school days, civics was a mandatory class in middle school. That said, this is a well-written and understandable explanation.”

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