"We're taking a beating in the P.R. war," conceded Shelby County Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini Monday, as he prepared to release a point-by-point refutation this week of a 12-point document released by litigants alleging serious commission irregularities in connection with the August 5th countywide election.
"The whole thing is nonsense, but it's been sinking in here and there by default," said Giannini, a former Shelby County Republican chairman who became Election Commission chairman after the GOP captured a legislative majority in the 2008 election cycle. "We've been holding back responding, waiting on the TBI [Tennessee Bureau of Investigation] to finish their report first, but it doesn't look like they're quite ready, and we can't let this false impression continue any further."
The TBI was invited to intervene by District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, who had been asked to conduct his own investigation of the election by the commission itself.
"What's been lost sight of is the indisputable and measurable fact that turnout in Democratic areas was way down both during early voting and on election day, while turnout was unusually high in Republican areas. That was universally reported by the media at the time, and that fact, and not some fictitious conspiracy, explains what happened in the election," Giannini said.
The litigants, 10 Democratic candidates who lost their races for county offices, have filed suit in Chancery Court to have the election results declared "incurably uncertain" and therefore null and void — a petition that, if granted, would create further tangle and turmoil in an already roiled political scene.
The 12-point accusation, prepared by consultants Bev Harris and Susan Pynchon, notes the well-publicized election-day "glitch" which resulted from early-voting data from a previous election being fed into the August 5th electronic poll book, thereby creating at least momentary barriers to some 5,400 potential voters.
Other alleged circumstances include a "ghost race" in the Diebold election machinery, concealed from voters but accessible for purposes of changing or re-routing vote totals, a "manual override" feature with similar capability, and vote totals reportedly more numerous than actual voters.
Those and other points, widely circulated at a series of ongoing protest meetings, have raised tensions to the point that, at one such meeting, held last week at Bloomfield Baptist Church on South Parkway, speakers charged the Election Commission with "criminal" conduct and with outright theft of the election, which had resulted in a sweep of county offices by Republican candidates, all of whom took the oath of office last week at the Cannon Center.
On Wednesday morning, the winners took turns swearing their vows before a mellowed-out crowd, in a ceremony that culminated with the newly inaugurated Shelby County mayor, Mark Luttrell, invoking an image of "the city on the hill" and professing himself "the number-one advocate of this great county."
At Bloomfield, on Thursday night, five miles farther south, some of the August 5th losers and their supporters faced a highly energized standing-room-only crowd of 500 souls and took turns vowing reprisals for a "stolen" election — including the prospect of "shutting this city down." And the idea of merging city and county took a pummeling as well.
Among the speakers at Bloomfield was Randy Wade, who vowed not to reveal the real identity of informant "John Doe." Wade, the defeated candidate for sheriff, alleges "Doe" to be a source in the Election Commission who confided in him that commission officials knew a day before the August 5th election that early-voting data from the May primary election had been fed into the Electronic Poll Book for the August vote. That allegation, if verified, would transform what the Election Commission diagnosed as "human error" into something more sinister.
"Yes, I have an informant," proclaimed Wade, who went on to say: "Before I turn this individual over to the TBI, I will die and go to hell. ... He will remain as John Doe. If, in fact, they take me to jail, all hell will break loose in this town. I am not playing with this. We mean business."
Blogger/broadcaster Thaddeus Matthews took the microphone, telling the crowd, "Somebody in Shelby County decided they were going to steal an election, and they did it quite well." He then addressed himself to "the white establishment and handkerchief-head Negroes." Referring to several alleged personal derelictions on Giannini's part, he said, "We invite Bill Giannini to come into the hood, and we'll deal with him the way they deal in the hood."
And he vowed, "If Randy Wade goes to jail, we will shut this city down. Some white folks ain't seen black power before. Some black folks ain't used black power before. We're not talking about burning no buildings. Hell, they're our buildings. We're talking about economically shutting this city down!"
(Neither Matthews nor other speakers using similar turns of phrase explained why their animus should be turned against the "city," where the Democratic candidates probably prevailed overall, rather than the outer county, where the Republican candidates had built up their winning margins.)
Shep Wilbun, a defeated candidate for Juvenile Court clerk, contended that Shelby County had experienced "immoral" and dishonest elections ever since 1990, and lawyer Charles Carpenter, a longtime associate of former Mayor Willie Herenton, reviewed for the crowd a whole series of allegedly fraudulent actions in county elections, ranging from attempts to discard votes belonging to victorious congressional candidate Harold Ford Sr. in 1974 to the whittling down of Herenton's 3,000-vote-winning margin in 1991 to a mere 142 votes.
"They stole the votes, but they didn't steal enough," Carpenter declared. He noted that supporters of defeated Mayor Dick Hackett had not contested the results of the 1991 race. "You know why? Because people would have gone to jail. They were stealing votes then, they're stealing votes now." He called for massive voter turnouts from African Americans as the only way to safeguard the election process.
"Consolidation is not for us!"
ALSO TAKING A DIRECT HIT at Bloomfield was city/county consolidation, as proposed in the Metro Charter referendum on the November 2nd election ballot.
Wade, Matthews, and Carpenter all passionately denounced the pending charter resolution.
"Let me tell you something: Consolidation is not for us!" Matthews had thundered. Wade had elaborated, "Let me say this. I am not in the middle. I am against consolidation." Noting that the proposed Metro Charter allows the suburban municipalities to keep their charters but would call for that of Memphis to lapse, he said, "Why is it we have to give ours up?" — answering his own question with the assertion that "the city is majority African American."
So dramatic was the rhetorical turn against consolidation that Rev. Ralph White, the Bloomfield pastor, a member of the Charter Commission and a sometime spokesman for the charter referendum, backed off from it. "If you don't like it, don't vote for it," he said. "That is not going to divide me from my community."
• Simultaneously on Thursday night, the November 2nd referendum was coming in for verbal abuse at a meeting of the Shelby County Democratic Executive Committee, which voted lopsidedly to oppose the consolidation measure.
At its regular monthly meeting Thursday night, the Democratic committee recalled a previously tabled recommendation from its steering committee to oppose consolidation and then approved that motion by a reported vote of 34 to 9, with five abstaining.
The committee further voted to approve $2,000 in funding for a campaign against the consolidation proposal. Before the vote was taken, three prominent consolidation proponents — Matt Kuhn, Darrell Cobbins of Rebuild Government, and Andre Fowlkes of the Metro Charter Commission — were invited to make the case for supporting the ballot referendum.
Objections to it ranged far and wide, but key points were the proposal's prohibition of partisan elections for Metro office and the fact that Memphis would relinquish its charter while the suburban municipalities would be allowed to keep theirs.
• One side effect of the post-election controversy is that the situation of the Election Commission's two Democratic members, Myra Stiles and James Johnson, has suddenly become more precarious.
A number of Democrats have expressed private misgivings concerning the two members, both of whom voted to certify the election results and to concur with the official Election Commission finding that only "human error" had occurred on August 5th and not enough of it to influence the outcome.
Shelby County Democratic chairman Van Turner, himself the target of post-election criticism, professed "disappointment" that Stiles and Johnson had disregarded a formal request from the party's executive committee to resist concurring with the commission's certification of the results.
But Turner said it was unlikely that any immediate action to replace the Democratic members would be forthcoming before Election Commission reappointments are considered by the two parties' legislative delegations after this year's election cycle is over.