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State Senator Defends Local County Election Officials

Tennessee State Sen. Joey Hensley R-Hohenwald defended the integrity of Giles County Election Commissioners at an Aug. 9 county Republican party meeting.

Hensley commented after Mark Ward, former Benton County election administrator, spoke to Giles County Republicans after Benton County election commissioners dismissed him from his position in June.

Chris Morris, Giles County Republican Party chairman, said county Republicans visited Ward in April in Camden. Ward was county election administrator there 12 years. Before that, he was an election commissioner two years and a Benton County Commissioner for four years.

He was born in Camden.

Although loved by all in his county. including Democrats, Morris said Ward was decertified by the state election commission and removed from office June 24 by county election commissioners.

“Like I have been saying, we have problems at our state level with our own Republicans,” Morris said.

“You in Giles County have good election commissioners,” Hensley said,

“We want county elections to be fair elections.”

“The Election Commission does have the right to hire and fire,” he said.

Giles County Election Commission Chairman Graham Stowe and county election commissioners Shara Flacy and Annelle Guthrie attended the Aug. 9 Republican Party meeting at the Pulaski Mule Barn.

Ward was decertified by the Tennessee Election Commission before he was removed by the Benton County Election Commission.

Charges against Ward included showing partiality as an administrator, improperly counting mail-in ballots, unequal party representation in the election process, not timely registering voters, failing to remove ineligible voters from the Benton County voter rolls and misinforming the public about how local election commissioners are appointed.

This was in a statement from Mark Goins, state coordinator for elections, sent to a Benton County radio station.

“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,” Goins said, in the statement.

Hearings to revoke an administrator’s certification are extremely rare in Tennessee and are only held after there is substantial evidence the administrator has failed do the job, Goins said.

With the decertification, Ward lost the state reimbursement of part of his $70,000 annual election administrator salary, according to Goins’ statement.

Goins issued the official notice of revocation June 15, with copies sent to the Benton County Election Commission members.

In his statement, Goins said, “rarely do Republicans and Democrats agree on anything.”

“However, after looking at the evidence, three Republican and three Democratic State Election Commission members agreed to revoke the Administrator of Elections certification of Ward.”

Most of Ward’s defense blamed prior election commission members for issues in the 2018 and 2020 elections, according to Goins’ statement.

“State officials are puzzled by claims that the revocation hearing would affect the voting system in Benton County.

“Currently, 28 counties use paper ballots as a voting method in Tennessee with more counties in the process of purchase paper ballot systems. The revocation of the administrator’s certification has no bearing on the voting system used in Benton County. Anyone who says otherwise is misleading the public.”

His troubles with the state began over questions about a contract for voting machines a few years ago, Ward said, separately.

Unsuccessful efforts, Ward said, were made to replace three Republicans on the Benton County Election Commission.

Typically, the State Election Commission accepts recommendations from the state senator and state representative representing that county before appointing county election commissioners of the majority party in the State Legislature.

County election commissions usually have five members, three from the majority party and two from the minority party.

To represent the minority party, the State Election Commissioner may ask the minority county political party for recommendations.

An article in the Tennessee Star on April 4, 2021, said that according to several sources, the replacement effort originated with Benton County Mayor Brett Lashlee, who suggested three replacements for the Republican members (election commissioners) to Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon.

Neither Lashlee nor Stevens commented to the newspaper, according to the article.

State Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, told the newspaper he had not been contacted about replacing the election commissioners, according to the article.

“Lashlee has apparently considered that his goal, achieved through replacing the commissioners, is to effect a change in the Administrator of Elections for Benton County, a position held by Ward since 2008,” according to the newspaper.

Jim Austin, Benton County Election Commission chairman, praised Ward, saying that Benton County had the cleanest, finest run and most honest elections in Tennessee, according to the newspaper.

“Austin attributed that to Ward’s efforts in cleaning up the voter rolls and implementing paper ballots as well as a commission with a spirit of cooperations and commitment to doing things “right with the law,” according to the article.

Matt Jones, Benton County Republican Party chairman, according to the newspaper, said Ward was recognized by Goins at a Tennessee Association of Certified Election Officials convention, for conversions to paper ballots in Benton County,, saying Ward was 10 years ahead of the curve.

Ward has almost universal support even among Democrats, according to Jones in the article, because they have faith in the system that they know is credible.

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