Tennessee’s Murky Recount Rules: GOP Primary Nowhere Close To Over


The Republican primary for Congress between incumbent Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) and state Sen. Jim Tracy (R) remained extremely tight as of mid-day Friday, with the two candidates separated by as few as 35 votes. The fact that the rules don’t allow for runoffs in Tennessee combined with the lack of automatic recount suggests the race could go on for a while longer.

As of early Friday afternoon, DesJarlais, the socially conservative congressman who was at the center of a 2012 scandal involving him urging a mistress to seek an abortion, had a slim lead over Tracy, 34,787 votes to DesJarlais to the state senator’s 34,752 votes. That margin was too close for the Associated Press to call the race. DesJarlais could emerge as the winner by just a few votes and Tracy could seek a recount — which is where things get tricky.

“The recount provisions are pretty broad so no one really knows how the hell that’s going to work,” a Republican campaign official told TPM.

Tennessee political experts told TPM that a recount is a serious possibility and, even though DesJarlais was leading on Friday, Tracy declared himself the winner the night before.

Here’s how a recount would work in this election. First, the election commissions in each county within DesJarlais’ district has to certify their election results. They have until Aug. 25 to do that, according to Tennessee Secretary of State communications director Blake Fontenay told TPM. Then, after all the counties have certified the election results, candidates have a five-day window to file a challenge.

A provision of Tennessee law, according to The Hill, says that a recount can only be ordered if there is a tie, signs of fraud that would effect the overall outcome of the election, malfunctioning voting machines that also could change the outcome of the election, or “any other instance the court or body with jurisdiction of a contested election finds that a recount is warranted.”

“And if there is a challenge then that would be heard by the Republican state executive committee in this case,” Fontenay said. “It’s not a challenge that would go to us. And it would be up to the committee to determine what needed to be done. I mean it’s their primary so they could ask for a recount or they could simply set aside the results. Obviously, they could uphold the results. And, upon hearing the facts presented, they might decide not to even have a formal proceeding.”

That’s assuming that it goes to a recount, which seems likely given how small a margin of victory could be in the race. Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer noted to TPM that either DesJarlais or Tracy seeking a recount seemed likely. But, Oppenheimer said, the candidates still have to wait for provisional votes to be counted. So the result could still change. The big thing is that there’s no automatic recount.”

Tracy, in the wee hours of the morning on Friday, seemed to be focused on the final vote tallies. In a Facebook post he wrote: “There are ballots left to be counted in the Fourth District Republican primary. We eagerly await the final outcome once the counting is completed and verified.”

Fontenay stressed though that as of the early afternoon on Friday what happened next in the race was still in “flux.”