The election backstory: Primaries

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 25, 2022 10:54 AM CT | Published: April 25, 2022 4:00 AM CT

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The city charter drafted in 1966 and approved by Memphis voters specifically bars partisan primary elections for city offices.

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Changing that stipulation would require a city charter amendment that would have to be approved by city voters in a referendum.

Primaries are controlled by the local Democratic and Republican parties with each party sending its request for the county primary elections to the Shelby County Election Commission.

That request includes the offices to be on the primary ballots.

Primary boards of the local parties determine who qualifies as a candidate for the party’s nomination.

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Partisan primaries for county offices began as a movement within the local Democratic party in the mid-1980s, leading to a temporary splintering of the local party before the idea faded away.

Local Republicans picked up the idea in the early 1990s starting with the 1992 county elections — the even-year cycle that at the time featured only county races for General Sessions Court Clerk and Assessor.

The Assessor’s race has since moved to the other even-year cycle where all other county offices are on the ballot.

Initially, Democrats did not hold a companion primary to match the Republican one.

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In 1994, the local Democratic party’s executive committee nominated a slate of candidates without holding a primary to match the slate chosen in the Republican primary election.

Democrats then called a set of companion Democratic primaries for county offices in later election years.

In 30 years of county primaries, chairmen of both local parties have questioned the need for primaries and some have actually said they thought it was a bad idea.

But no party chairman has been willing to unilaterally drop his or her party’s county primaries without the other party doing the same.

Last year, the Shelby County Republican Party made its request for the May 2022 primaries and decided for the first time in the 30-year history of county primaries in Shelby County not to include a primary for Shelby County Sheriff to nominate a challenger to Democratic Sheriff Floyd Bonner.

Bonner is also running unopposed in the May Democratic primary.

The Tennessee General Assembly passed a law this year removing the ban on partisan primaries for local public school board elections. Neither the Shelby County Democratic Party nor the Shelby County Republican Party opted to include that on their May primary ballots.

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Shelby County is the only county in the state not holding either Democratic or Republican school board primaries or both in this first election year that they are permitted.

Memphis elections are a distinct break in the county’s political rhythm, coming in an odd-numbered year in the fall and with nothing else on the ballot that year unless it is some kind of special election to fill a vacancy.

There was an attempt to change that cycle with a recommendation by the Memphis Charter Commission of 2008 to keep city elections nonpartisan but move them to November in even-numbered election years to line up with state and federal general election ballots.

The City Council would have also moved to staggered terms in the charter changes with the six council seats on the last odd-year election cycle in 2011 for terms of three years each.

The seven single-member district seats on the ballot would have been for terms of one year each.

The full four-year terms for each set of council seats would have started in the 2012 and 2014 city elections.

Memphis voters approved the charter changes and others recommended by the charter commission group, including ranked-choice voting and the current two-consecutive term limit for the mayor and council.

But in 2010, the City Council put a ballot question to voters that undid the previous charter amendments to move the city election year and stagger city council terms. Memphis voters approved that as well.


city partisan primaries county partisan primaries Shelby County Commission Memphis City Council Shelby County Democratic Party Shelby County Republican Party

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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