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Cheats

Or, how to stuff a wild ballot box.

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Not to get all Dickens on you, but this little stretch around the Flyer's Best of Memphis issue is both the best of times and the worst. It's a fun issue to put together, and it's the one time of the year we get to really interact with our readers.

But, geesh, the complaints. For a few weeks after the Best of Memphis issue comes out, we get calls from readers who are furious with the results. This place is not the best, they say. Well, that's how our readers voted, we reply. But nothing we say will soothe those who are irate.

One year, I received a call from a man who had just found out that one of our winners in the Food & Drink section uses frozen meat. Now, this particular restaurant has about 100 locations, so the idea that this place has a freezer was not alarming to me. This guy, however, felt very, very betrayed and was further incensed by my obvious indifference. Don't you think your readers who vote for this restaurant should know? he asked. But this place has such a stranglehold on its category, I told him, that it probably wouldn't matter if they served puppy. That was when he hung up on me.

The point is, the readers control who wins. Winners are not, as some believe, solely those who advertise with us. The only influence we have over the ballot is weeding out the stuffers.

I'm certain that a few cheaters have squeaked through to make it into the Best of Memphis list. (I hope their victories feel hollow.) But, over the 11 years we've been doing this, we've come up with a number of strategies to make cheating harder.

Each year, after all the ballots are received, they are given to a group of people independent of the Flyer. As they tally the votes, they set aside any suspicious-looking ballot. After the counting is completed, the ballots are given back to the Flyer, where each ballot is looked at by at least three staff members, which results in more ballots being thrown out. For instance, last year, about a third of the ballots we received were tossed.

Stuffers are relatively easy to spot. We might receive 30 ballots filled out in purple ink in the same handwriting. Or, all the answers will be the same. Usually, these ballots are sent from one place at one time, so we'll get them in a bundle. The stuffing becomes obvious rather quickly.

A couple of rules we adopted early on have made it tougher on stuffers. At one time, we let readers drop off their ballots at our office. That meant we'd get huge stacks of ballots delivered at one time. (You can just picture a bar full of people filling out the ballots at the behest of the bar's owner.) Now, we make readers mail ballots individually. We also started requiring readers to fill out at least 50 percent of the ballot. The result was that we no longer had to deal with stuffers who filled in just one category.

For the first time this year, we offered an online ballot. Registration required the voter to enter an e-mail address, which then could not be used again. The Flyer's tech guy had several of his friends try to hack into the system. They couldn't.

I'm not sure people are aware how difficult it would be to successfully cheat. Say you're desperate to unseat Jarvis Greer, the perennial winner of Best TV Sportscaster. This year, he got 318 votes out of a total of 460 votes cast in that category. That means you would have had to pick up at least 319 Flyers, filled out the ballots, and mailed each one at a postage cost of $118.03. Doesn't seem worth it, does it?

Admittedly, there's a gray area when it comes to what constitutes cheating and what is simply aggressive campaigning. A business owner might ask his regulars to remember him at voting time. That seems okay. Then, again, a business owner might demand to see filled-out ballots before his staff can get their paychecks. That would be uncool.

With the Best of Memphis ballot, as with everything, let your conscience be your guide. •

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