Democrats in Tennessee voted to re-elect a candidate who passed away about two weeks before the election. Tennessean state representative Barbara Cooper passed away on October 25 at 93. (WATN stated that her passing was “unexpected,” but not to be insensitive or flippant, but she was 93).
WHBQ reports Cooper received 7,999 votes to her opponent Michael Porter’s 2,942 in the general election. This is likely due to early voting and name recognition.
Some voters on Election Day probably didn’t know Cooper had passed away, even though she had served the 86th state House district for 26 years. If voters meet the statutory requirements under Tennessee law, they are eligible to vote by mail. On the Tennessee secretary of state’s website, there are several valid excuses for casting a ballot by mail. Such as absence from the country, physical disability, etc.
On the other hand, you can vote early “purely for convenience” up to 20 days before the election, even if you have nothing to do on election day. In this election, early voting started on October 19—six days before Cooper’s unexpected death.
No one will ever know how many votes were cast in this election simply because the voters did not wish to have Porter represent them in the state legislature or recognize Cooper’s 26 years of public service. This is because they voted early or on Election Day or didn’t know better that Cooper’s name was still on the ballot despite being deceased.
Following “mandatory” state legislation, the Shelby County Election Commission informed WATN that Cooper’s name would remain on the ballot in Shelby County.
Karen Camper, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, expressed her sadness at the passing of Barbara Cooper, a longtime colleague, and close friend, in an interview with WSMV. She has said that she fought tirelessly for Memphis, and her community, was an advocate for education and equality issues, and was a beautiful human being. We’re going to miss her,” she continued.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee must call a special election to fill Cooper’s seat now that it’s clear she can’t serve in office. This will be done by issuing a Writ of Election. As things stand, it’s tough to imagine how things could have been handled differently. Only a few weeks separated her passing from Election Day, making it impossible to identify a substitute and run a viable campaign. There may not have been enough time to reprint the ballots, even if that weren’t the case.
Cooper’s untimely death brings up a problem that could arise with early voting: by definition, people who cast ballots before Election Day have less information to go on than those who wait.
We saw this play in Pennsylvania, where many ballots had already been cast before Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s awful performance in the debate (with unclear effect). No one will ever know how many potential Fetterman voters altered their minds or didn’t cast ballots had they been given more time to consider their options.
Suppose Cooper’s supporters in Tennessee’s House District 86 had waited until Election Day to cast their ballots. In that case, they could have realized that Porter wasn’t such a bad alternative and voted for him, avoiding a costly and time-consuming special election for the state. It’s not impossible, but it’s also not very likely.
At the very least, it would have provided voters with a choice. Many early voters accidentally cast their ballots for the special election rather than for a specific candidate, and they had no way of knowing this was happening.
“Purely for the sake of convenience,” however, one of the absolute needs for a healthy democracy — an informed electorate — has been eroded. That’s one of the worst cases of the many weak arguments in favor of early voting (as opposed to absentee voting).