The Battle of Athens occurred 63 years ago but it's recently resurfaced at the center of a dispute between a Middle Tennessee political activist and Tennessee's secretary of state.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation paid a visit to Bernie Ellis, leader of Gathering to Save Our Democracy (a group championing a return to paper ballots for all state elections), after Secretary of State Tre Hargett's office accused him of making "terrorist" threats by invoking the Battle of Athens in an e-mail. Ellis claims he had never directly e-mailed Hargett's office, but he has invoked the event several times in his writings.
For those unfamiliar with local history, the Battle of Athens occurred in August 1946 when local citizens, including many military veterans who had recently returned home from World War II, took up arms against local officials accused of voter intimidation and corruption. A pitched gun battle between the G.I.s and their supporters and the McMinn County Sheriff's Department (including many deputies who had been brought in from elsewhere) took place outside the jail until dynamite was used to set off an explosion, causing the deputies inside the jail to surrender. No one was killed in the "Battle," but it did change the political face of the county for years to come. The investigation of Ellis was quickly dropped, but he resents that the TBI was sent out in the first place. He is accusing Hargett of using the TBI in an attempt to intimidate Ellis and others who share his views.
Ellis said he referenced the Battle of Athens because it is an example of what lengths people might have to go to if the government ever becomes corrupt. "There aren't too many options available to us when votes are not being counted the way they are cast," he said.
Ellis said he has invoked the Battle of Athens many times in the past along with other events in state history that promoted voting rights such as Niota native Harry T. Burn's famous swing vote for women's suffrage and the case of Baker vs. Carr, a U.S. Supreme Court case that decided federal courts had jurisdiction when it came to reapportioning a state's voting districts.
"Tennessee has a proud history of expanding the franchise," Ellis said, adding he would sing the praises of the ancestors of McMinn County until the day he died.
Ellis is a champion of the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act of 2007 (TVCA) and believes Hargett is dragging his feet in implementing the act.
Hargett and State Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins have pushed recently to delay the act, which mandates that paper ballots counted through optical scanning devices become the standard practice for Tennessee elections by 2010. It also calls for hand counts in randomly-selected precincts during an election.
Ellis said his group is not opposed to electronic voting, but he believes a paper ballot will also be necessary to ensure votes are counted as they are cast.
"We are not against modern technology," he said. "We are against technology that will kill our democracy."
In a document from his Web site, Hargett said he was committed to helping counties implement the act, but cited logistical and cost problems as his reasons for wanting to push the deadline back to 2012.
Goins also said during an interview that voting machines certified to Election Assistance Commission's 2005 standards, a requirement of the TVCA, were not readily available.
The main counter argument is that all costs of purchasing and distributing the equipment should be covered by the $35 million in federal funds left in the state coffers from the Help America Vote Act of 2002.
The bill that would have delayed the implementation passed the State House of Representatives but failed to achieve a constitutional majority in the State Senate. A clutch of Internet bloggers reacted vehemently toward Hargett after the word of Ellis' visit by the TBI got out. Many of them are accusing the secretary of state of trying to delay the TVCA for partisan reasons.
Ellis went as far as to say that if Hargett and Goins did not want to implement the TVCA then they should resign from their offices.