Benton County TN: “Hostile” Takeover to Eliminate Paper Ballots

  • by:
  • Source: UncoverDC
  • 09/19/2023

After months of controversial hearings, at both local and state levels, the Benton County Election Commission (BCEC) removed its County Election Administrator, Mark Ward, in an "emergency meeting" on Thursday. Ward was beloved for his integrity and ability to work with both parties, enjoying broad bipartisan support. He has been in the position since 2009. The move could eliminate one of the last counties in Tennessee to hold elections using paper ballots. All five BCEC members were also replaced, but not in the way they are usually elected.

According to Ward, his downfall goes back to a meeting in 2019 between himself and Secretary of State Tre Hargett in Nashville. Ward had noticed unusually persistent lobbying on the part of election officials and Mark Goins, Coordinator of Elections for the state of Tennessee. The lobbying was to buy ES&S voting machines for his county when he and the local residents were perfectly happy with the paper ballot system and Hart InterCivic scanners he had brought in. Additionally, he stated, "six or seven choices of vendors are available to counties, and ES&S always seemed to be the vendor being promoted."

Ward reports that Hargett told him point-blank, "I am fully aware of what is going on, and I don't want you to say another word about it." From that day forward, Ward believes Goins targeted him for removal.

How the Board of Commissioners is Appointed

Normally, the two parties nominate who sits on the board. Every county in Tennessee gets 5 people to sit on the county commission. The majority party gets three members, and the minority gets two.

In Benton County, the process has always been that each party chooses its nominees, and those nominees then go to the state Rep. Bruce Griffey. Griffey represents Benton, Henry, and Stewart Counties.

This time Benton County's Mayor, Brett Lashlee, allegedly rejected the duly nominated Republicans and substituted his own—a conflict of interest for an elected official. The two Democrats, Cindy Wheatley and Russell King were also removed. Both were supportive of Ward. The selected individuals had been pushed up through the political structure to Gary D. Kee, Republican State Executive Committeeman, and then on up to state Senator John Stevens.

Senator Stevens ultimately backed the removal of Ward. With the upcoming redistricting, he will no longer represent Benton County. In this unreleased re-districting map, Benton County is depicted with red spots below:

TN Redistricting Map/PatriotPunk

None of this maneuvering aligned with the wishes of Benton County residents and the local Republican party. Many recommended that Ward and the 5 commissioners stay in their positions. Many were confused with the way they were removed.

According to local residents, Ward should never have been decertified or removed. He was respected by both Republicans and Democrats in the county. Republican Chair, Matt Jones, reflects the sentiment of the local party and many residents in his letter below.

Mark Ward/Letter to Editor

Video interviews below show five interviews conducted by local resident Cristy Baldwin and Coffee County resident Robert Chase Matheson, who is the owner of Patriot Punk Network. Baldwin says she is like a "sixth cousin to Ward, but everyone in Benton County is related one way or another."

The footage shows interviews with local resident Bob Myers, newly ousted former BCEC Secretary and Democrat Cindy Wheatley, Republican Chair Matt Jones, former Republican BCEC member Ben Thompson, and Dayna Ferguson, Chairman of the Benton County Democratic Party.

Democrat Chair and commissioner, Dayna Ferguson, said in her interview:

"[Ward] has done excellent for Benton County. I don't see where he has done anything that someone needs to try to get rid of him for any reason. You know, we do have a paper trail that's more than you can say for a lot of 'em. And you can't very well try to hide how the voting turned out. It's very honest."

Ferguson also agreed that Ward "is being railroaded."

Wheatley discusses having spoken in March with 9th Congressional District Tennessee Board of Regents member Greg Duckett about Ward. Wheatley seems to communicate that Duckett was poking around about Ward, testing the waters about the strength of her convictions regarding his leadership over the past 12 years.

Her Democrat colleague, Russell King, and Dem Chair Dayna Ferguson also received phone calls from Duckett. Eventually, King told Wheatley that Wheatley's and King's names "were unacceptable" to Duckett because they were "yes men" for Mark Ward.

Wheatley then called Duckett herself to ask him directly about the "rumors" she was hearing:

"I've never met Mr. Duckett before. I didn't know who he was until all this started."

She continued to recount the story of her phone call with Duckett:

"I hear that our names were submitted to be reinstated on the Board, but you turned around and call up our local president and say we were unacceptable—He said, 'yes, I did.' And I said, okay. I said I was also told the reason we were unacceptable is because we were Mark Ward 'yes people'. He says, 'Well, I can't say anything on that.'

"Let me put it this way," Wheatley continued to say to Duckett, "Today, I can promise a fair and honest election. If the whole Board and administrator Mark Ward is replaced, I will not be able to guarantee that ever again." 

 Wheatley also stated:

"Mark Ward has been the election administrator for 12 years. And if he's been doing something illegal or wrong for 12 years, why hasn't the state spoken up before now? All five are unanimous in their opinion about Ward. To a person, they say Ward has been nothing but professional in his role as BCEC Director of Elections."

Republican Chair Matt Jones explains that the Mayor's involvement in the selection of the commissioners and his possession of the keys to the building are "kind of a conflict of interest when you have the county Mayor involved in the process of selecting the people in his case, only a year from now, who are over his election." 

The video interviews are shown in their entirety below:

Thursday's Emergency Meeting of the BCEC

Thursday's emergency meeting shows Debbie Kyle leading the meeting. Later, Griffey tells everyone about his wish to keep Ward in his position. Cristy is sitting at the front of the audience in the red shirt. There is contentious debate during the meeting about Ward's removal and the suspicious way the new board members were appointed.

Beasley is seen in the clip below telling Baldwin and other residents that "you've got Democrats on here now, and ya'll are gonna back off." Baldwin points out that Wheatley was a Democrat, and there are Democrats in the hearing audience too. The clip below was omitted from the official meeting video captured above.

In the following video, Benton County residents voice their opinions on the removal of Ward. This clip also shows Rep. Bruce Griffey speaking about his experience with Ward's removal.

When the meeting adjourned, the approximately 70 residents who attended in support of Ward were told to leave by the local sheriff. Baldwin noted that the meeting might have been more sparsely attended because it was called for 10 a.m. instead of the usual 5 p.m.

After the official meeting, 4 of the 5 newly installed election commissioners and two others stayed in the building. One seat remains vacant for the Republicans. Remaining in the building were: BCEC Clerk, Scott Jones, who resigned the next day due to his disagreement with Ward's treatment; newly installed Republican Board members, Debbie Kyle and Janet Higdon; newly installed Board Member and Democrat, Gina Beasley; and SEC Chairman, Gary Kee—whose presence was almost certainly a potential conflict of interest.

Kyle's daughter, Kalieha, stayed too—a conflict of interest since she is an elected official and commissioner for Benton County.

Newly installed Democrat Stanley Rowland left right after the official meeting.

According to text messages sent from inside the secret meeting, county business was being conducted, violating the Sunshine law.

In the text message exchange below, Scott discusses the government business being conducted behind closed doors and the keys to various areas and boxes held by both parties. He also discusses his resignation.

Scott Jones/Text Messages

Notably, after everyone left for the day, the locks were immediately replaced on the doors of the Election Commission Meeting building by a locksmith and allegedly given to Mayor Brett Lashlee.

Baldwin also informed UncoverDC that Democrats were in the majority, and keys to election boxes were allegedly held only by the Democrats prior to Ward's involvement. Both parties should have separate keys and access to equipment and ballot boxes. Ward made sure both parties had keys during his tenure.

UncoverDC spoke with Mark Ward, who pointed out that the Mayor should not have access to the Election Commission Office. Voter records, including social security numbers and other personal information, are housed in the building.

Many Hearings and History Behind the Removal of Ward

After several hearings seeking to remove Ward, he was decertified on June 14 in Nashville in a meeting with the State Election Commission—the first time in 16 years, according to State Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins, who told radionwtn:

“Mark Ward is [the] first administrator to have his certification revoked in 16 years and is the only current administrator in the state to have his certification revoked."

"[T]he ramification of certification revocation is that an administrator of elections no longer has to be paid the statutory minimum. The state election commission does not have the authority to hire or fire the administrator of elections."

In the decertification meeting, Ward was accused of being responsible for what the SEC said were poor decisions. Ward stated that he signed off on decisions that were made by the BCEC. While Ward may well be ultimately responsible, according to Baldwin, many in the county believed he was signing off on decisions by the board that were well-considered and proper. Cristy stated that the whole SEC decertification hearing was nothing more than a "Kangaroo Court."

Baldwin explained her perspective on the decertification allegations:

"If you look at the evidence for Mark—it would show that 90 percent of the stuff they accused him of— the Benton County election commission did their job. The Commission followed the law and their interpretation of it. He signed on it. Both he and the board did a good job for our county."

During the decertification meeting, Ward's attorney mentions a Sunshine law violation and is denied a request to show video evidence to the SEC board. Baldwin observed members of the Commission who "got up and started talking and leaving during [the] defense. The chair, lady in the middle of [the] board in white, was on her phone, and the man to the right of her had been falling asleep."

Residents in the county collected over 1800 signatures to protest the decertification. According to Baldwin, the number of signatures collected is higher than the number of voters (1500) who normally show up for primaries. Hundreds showed up at three of the hearings in support of Ward.

Mark Ward's Story

Prior to 2006, Hart InterCivic touchscreens were used in the county with no way to properly audit an election. Ward had an alarming experience at the polls in 2008 while voting at the first machine in the room—a machine he says would have been more frequently used because of its location.

It showed his votes to be flipped each of the three times he sought to verify them with the summary report on the screen. He brought it to the attention of an election worker who took him clear across the room to another machine—and, lo and behold, his vote was perfect. Ward had a bad feeling because of the flipping and because the poll worker passed several other machines to usher him to the one that finally recorded the proper votes.

It was that incident that spurred Ward to run for Benton County Director of Elections. He was determined to move his county to paper ballots, and he did so in 2010.

Benton County, with a population of approximately 17,000, has only 8,000 registered voters. Only about 5,000 showed up at the polls in November. Benton County is one of the few remaining counties in Tennessee that still uses a true paper ballot system that can be easily audited and counted. Ward has been a huge champion of paper ballots because of the audit trail they afford. 28 of the 95 counties have voting machines that leave a paper trail.

In April, Ward responded in an Op-Ed to Lashlee's choice to circumvent the normal process.

"There is a reason an elected politician should not have influence over the county elections. If someone owed their appointment or job to an elected person who was asking them to do something unethical or illegal, would they stick to the law and say no, or would they yield to the pressure to keep their appointment and cooperate? There is only one logical conclusion to draw from Lashlee, Kee, and Stevens conspiring to replace the BCEC members in the way that they did—to replace me as Election Administrator."

The OpEd is captured below:

Mark Ward/OpEd/Camden Chronicle/April 2021

Ward believes that Wendell Moore's relationship with Marc Goins and Tre Hargett may be behind the effort to remove him. Moore works for MNA Government Relations, a lobbyist firm associated with ES&S Voting Machines. Goins and Hargett served in the state legislature together while Moore was a lobbyist.

Ward says he was always committed to being honest and transparent. He worked closely with Democrats and Republicans and felt he had good relationships with all. Ward also explained that he is not the first one in Tennessee to be removed in this way.

Dan Miller was the Henderson County Administrator of Elections from June 2009 until he was terminated in January 2020 by the county election commission. Miller filed a lawsuit against Henderson County and several others in June of 2020.

Again, the Tennessee Star confirms this account. "The lawsuit alleges that the county election commission’s termination of Miller was forced upon them by members of the SEC who had appointed them. Two of the SEC members named as defendants in the lawsuit, Jimmy Wallace of Jackson and Greg Duckett of Memphis, still sit on the SEC today." A judge in the case dismissed it on Nov. 10, 2020, and, according to Ward, Miller didn't have the funds to file an appeal.

Both Ward and Baldwin are worried that Tennessee will turn blue because of these types of events. They already see movement in that direction. Both believe that it is only because they live in a small community where everyone knows each other and is aware of the political shenanigans. Baldwin explained that this type of thing went on in Madison too.

"They got rid of all the election board members. As soon as they got rid of them, they got rid of the election administrator, installing Lori Lott, and the first thing she did was put in the ES&S Machines. This is the second county in which she has done this. She moved to Madison and put ES&S machines in there." Baldwin continued, "Our community knew that their election board and its administrator were doing a good job. And yet, they were still kicked out. What scares me is that in the larger towns, people don’t know each other, so there’s no way to fight it or hold people accountable. They don’t even notice what’s going on."

*Early on June 29, a tn county election commissioner spoke with UncoverDC to relay the correction above. Lori Lott did not switch voting machines to ES&S. However, she did put ES&S machines in Madison County as stated. We apologize for the misinformation. As always we try to get the facts straight and will continue to do so.

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