As Early Voting Ends in Shelby County, the Glitch Index Seems Down

Election watchdog Weinberg finds a far smaller incidence of potential ballot error than occurred in the August round, but others still find cause for alarm.

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Although they have not been precisely quantified, various published reports suggest that there may have been some inaccuracies during Shelby County’s early voting period in matching precincts with the correct ballots — some of the reports suggesting problems along the border of Millington and Lucy, the latter being a small community which Millington is in the process of annexing.

In August Lucy voters were erroneously given ballots that allowed them to vote on Millington’s sales-tax referendum to fund a municipal school system. The referendum issue was narrowly defeated on votes from the Lucy precincts. Chancellor Arnold Goldin subsequently disqualified the Lucy votes as being ineligible, allowing for a change in results that empowered Millington, along with five other suburban municipalities, to conduct school board elections in the current election round.

But in general, the situation has improved considerably over what it was for the August 2 primary and county general election, according to Joe Weinberg, the amateur sleuth who, in an effort paralleled by fellow activist Steve Ross, found more than 3000 wrong ballots — an error rate later authenticated by state election officials — in the county’s August round of voting.

Weinberg ran a check on the first week of early voting for the November election in Shelby County, finding some 20 possible discrepancies, distributed fairly evenly countywide, and extrapolated that into the number 100 for the likely total occurring in early voting overall — a relatively negligible number.

Given that 232,691 is the total number of early voters reported by Rich Holden, the overall percentage rate of error here is only .0004297544812, which would seem to most people a reasonably minute and inconsequential divergence.

But it’s still seen as a problem by Shelby County Conmissioner Steve Mulroy, a Democrat and law professor at the University of Memphis who had made electoral reform one of his major causes even before he first sought political office in 2006. Mulroy pointed that a mere handful of altered votes in the Milington/Lucy case occasioned a significant difference in the August 2 results and accounted for a transformation of the final results.

And, though Mulroy did not cite the case, the fact is that what is probably the most pivotal election in Memphis political history— the upset win in 1991 of mayoral contender Willie Herenton over incumbent Dick Hackett to become the city’s first elected black mayor — was resolved by a similarly tiny differential.

Out of 247,919 votes cast in that election, Herenton would prevail by the razor-thin margin of 142 — a percentage rate of .0005727677184.

Mulroy also expressed concern about a situation stemming from a power outage at the Greater Middle Baptist Church polling site Tuesday night. As Jake Brown, a local adjunct member of the Shelby County Democratic Party, explained it, there were reports that some voters had been forced to vote manually during the outage and that their votes had been entered into the electronic voting machines later by poll workers when power was restored.

Administrator Holden said that was not the case, that, while there had been power outages at two or three early votng sites, the voting machines themselves were battery-operated and also protected by stand-alone generators and never ceased to function.

“The only process that needed to be switched from electronic to manual was the ballot application form, not the vote itself,” said Holden, who acknowledged that the ballot applications, the processing of which is separate from the voting machines and dependent on a standard power line, were in fact re-entered electronically when power was restored.

Holden estimates that another 140,000 Shelby Countians may vote on Tuesday, November 6, formally election day but in fact merely the official end of the November round of voting. The proportionally smaller expected turnout on Tuesday continues a trend in recent years whereby early voting has begun to assume a numerically greater importance than election day itself.

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