Opinion » Viewpoint

Restore Voter Confidence

Specific steps must be taken to heal long-standing systemic problems.

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On Monday, August 20th, the Shelby County Election Commission was scheduled to certify the results of the troubled August 2nd primary election. Problems exposed in that election by Joe Weinberg and myself involved thousands of voters receiving wrong ballots in federal and state primary contests, as well as an undetermined number in municipal referenda throughout the county.

The state of Tennessee has promised an investigation into these problems. We can only hope that this investigation will be speedy and thorough and offer concrete solutions to problems with the electoral process in Shelby County.

Shelby County has a long history of problems at the polls — from the basement votes found in the 1974 U.S. House and 1991 mayoral elections to the "dead voters" in the 2005 Ophelia Ford election, the 2010 electronic poll book imbroglio, and now the 2012 "wrong-ballot" primary election.

All of these examples point to systemic problems that the public feels are not resolved, depressing turnout and reinforcing a belief that the process is inherently tainted or at least poorly managed.

Two weeks ago, interim county commissioner Brent Taylor took to these pages offering a Viewpoint opinion about precinct consolidation as a solution for problems with our elections and as a means to increase voter turnout.

While there's no question some precinct consolidation will occur in the coming months, the idea of 50 "super-precincts," as Taylor proposed, has several problems. First, it ignores current law restricting the size of precincts (5,000 voters max). Second, rules regulating how precincts can be split between classes of districts (precincts for state Senate and county commission cannot be split) will play a large role in any future precinct consolidation.

In addition to these legal issues, the problem of potentially reducing access to 50 locations from the current Election Day total of 219 would make it harder for those with limited transportation options to make it to the polls. Some 50 percent of total participation occurred on Election Day in the August 2nd election.

There's little evidence to suggest that expanding the number of locations throughout early voting, but reducing the number on Election Day, would result in additional turnout. The truth is, some people just like voting on Election Day. Making it harder for them on the last day of voting will not increase turnout.

If we're serious about increasing voter participation, there are several things that can and must be done first to increase the confidence of voters:

First, the election commission must do better at the business of actually holding elections. Sure, not every election in Shelby County has had massive problems, but the public perception is that every election is somehow tainted by a procedural fumble. This may not be a fair assessment, but perception often isn't fair.

To correct this, the commission must work to ensure that ballots are free from errors and a publicly understood system is in place to resolve problems quickly — taking the "cuss" out of customer service. It will take several election cycles free from major malfunctions to regain the public trust.

Second, the election commission must get better at informing the public about changes and upcoming elections. Partnering with nonpartisan electoral advocacy groups and vastly expanding the use of traditional and nontraditional media to reach out to the public will help voters understand the issues and restore faith in the process.

Third, the election commission must move forward with a comprehensive plan to be more transparent and accountable than any other public board or commission in Shelby County. This means moving away from a posture that has sometimes produced dismissive statements from the body.

Other imperatives:

Offer explanations of reports to reduce misunderstandings before they're released.

Announce status changes in voter records and precinct information publicly as they occur rather than waiting until someone else reports them.

Be proactive instead of reactive.

By doing these things, the election commission can change the conversation from one about an unaccountable board to one about a commission that is actively seeking to inform the public. If you're not telling your story, someone else is doing it for you.

None of these suggestions are particularly earth-shattering or groundbreaking. They're simple, low-cost solutions that will help engage and inform the public while building confidence in an institution charged with a foundational element of our republic: voting. Enacting them will require an effort from the administration, and the board, to be and to do better. 

In the wake of the problems marring the election that just concluded, the election commission doesn't have anything to lose.

Audio-visual technician Steve Ross blogs at vibinc.com and was a recent candidate for the Shelby County Commission.

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