"Erased Voters' Gaffe May Force Changes by Election Commission



Bev Harris
  • Bev Harris
Whether it’s a case of a blind squirrel finding real acorns or a maligned activist coming into her own with important revelations, new questions raised about the Shelby County Election Commission by controversial Seattle-area voting-rights activist Bev Harris may well cause serious investigations and important procedural changes.

Allegations from Harris last week that hundreds of Shelby County voters — almost all black Democrats — have had their voting history erased have put Election Commission officials on the defensive and prompted a demand from 9th District congressman Steve Cohen Sunday that the U.S. Department of Justice and Tennessee State Election Coordinator Mark Goins look into her charges.

“The ballot must remain free and open to all,” said Cohen, who had made similar requests for DOJ scrutiny following a glitch in the August 2010 countywide election that caused several hundred voters to be turned away, at least temporarily, after an erroneous early-voting list had been fed into the county’s electronic voting log.

Subsequently, a slate of losing Democratic candidates in that election filed suit to force new elections, and Harris was one of several consultants called in to aid the litigants. She helped prepare a comprehensive list of alleged irregularities but was not recognized as a proper authority by Chancellor Arnold Goldin, nor did attorneys for the plaintiffs avail themselves of her most sensational accusations, some of which imputed illegal intentions to the Election Commission. Goldin would ultimately dismiss the suit summarily.

Harris, whose Black Box Voting blog attempts to monitor election irregularities nationwide, has remained in touch with Shelby County Democrats who are appealing that decision and has stepped-up her attentions to local voting issues of late.

A month or so ago, she contacted members of the Shelby County Election Commission and the news media with a list of largely recycled allegations concerning the 2010 elections. These attracted little note, but she got everybody’s attention with her new charges last week that the prior voting history of 488 Shelby Countians, whom she listed by name, had been inexplicably erased on an Election Commission “all details” list of registered voters of a sort that is issued monthly. Almost all of the voters on the list were African American Democrats, and the absence of a voting history could make such voters legal fodder for a purge list, Harris said.

Local Democratic activists were predictably outraged, and neither Election Commission chairman Robert Meyers nor Commission executive director Rich Holden, both Republicans, had a ready explanation, though both insisted that the actual registration records on the Election Commission’s official computers contained the full election histories of all 488 voters, whose ability to vote was not endangered.

Meyers and Holden each said they welcomed an investigation by a responsible outside authority, and each acknowledged that the Commission’s current technology might be flawed and in need of replacement. “If we end up with a new system that works better, that would suit me fine,” Holden said.

Bev Harris herself eschews any ambiguity. Her send-out on the latest Election Commission irregularity is headed “CAUGHT RED HANDED” in bold caps, and she prefaces the list of Shelby Countians whose voting history she alleges to have been erased with this categorical introduction:

Four hundred and eighty-eight voters, every one of them in the Tennessee district of US Rep Steve Cohen (D-09), all but four lifelong Democrats, and nearly all Black, had their voting history erased by Shelby County election workers, setting them up for purge from the voter list.

To alter voting histories for a selected set of voters, putting them at risk for strategically selected purge, is to demean them, to treat them as if they have less worth as human beings than they do. And to demean them is to wrong them. What Shelby County's election staff has done, in altering the records, is morally wrong.

And, though one of the 488 listed voters, Cardell Orrin, is campaign manager of Cohen’s opponent in this year’s Democratic primary, Tomeka Hart, and it is at least theoretically possible that some others among the overwhelmingly African-American voters listed might be Hart voters, Harris declares unequivocally in another black, bold headline:


Harris spells out her reasoning thusly:

Not only are almost all the altered records Democrat, not only are they almost all Black, but every single one of them is in Congressional District 09.

She proceeds further, under a heading that implies she is wise to the local ways:


I have heard that Cohen's seat is not considered at risk, though with redistricting and a well financed opponent, and paperless touchscreen voting machines, and selective removal of voters from his voting base, who knows?

The implication is that — Orrin and other potential Hart voters notwithstanding — the danger to the incumbent 9th District congressman lies not in his primary but in the general election, where the presumed frontrunner in the current Republican primary, George Flinn, could well be Cohen’s opponent.

Former Shelby County Commissioner Flinn, a wealthy radiologist and radio magnate who spent millions of dollars of his own money in two losing races, for Shelby County Mayor in 2002 and for the 8th District congressional seat in 2010, is undeniably “well financed,” and he and his campaign team have cited the GOP-overseen 2012 redistricting of the 9th District, shifting its contour away from East Memphis and northward toward the Tipton County line, as grounds for optimism in the general election.

Cohen’s own campaign team have pooh-poohed the prospects of Flinn (who still must overcome a Republican primary opponent, 2010 GOP nominee Charlotte Bergmann), noting that the racial and political ratios of the newly defined district are virtually the same as those of the old 9th and are overwhelmingly Democratic on what would appear to be at least a two-to-one basis.

But, as Harris says, who knows?

It would surely take more than the erasure of 488 voter histories to alter the odds, however, especially since not even Harris alleges that the designated voters are in danger of being stripped of their rights in the current election season, and Election Commission chairman Robert Meyers notes that their presence on the “details” list is an ipso facto guarantee that they are good to go at the polls for 2012.

Harris has this point covered, however:

I have also heard that the most astute political strategists focus on changing not just the weather (short term election results), but the climate (long term voting environment).

At any rate, it doesn't matter what Cohen's chances are. The rights that were violated are those of Shelby County VOTERS, who have a right to vote for the candidate of their choice, and who are entitled to accurate records.

She is surely correct in saying that, and, on this subject of “accurate records,” a pair of questions come to mind:

*Are the 488 people on her list the only voters whose voting history has allegedly been erased?

*She cites Darrick Harris, a well-known local Democratic activist, as the source of the list, but in her broadside does not spell out how Darrick Harris (no relation, btw) came by his list or how it was culled, or precisely in what way it may have been refined from a raw Election Commission source.

Contacted about the matter, Darrick Harris said that Bev Harris had assembled the list from lengthier voter-registration data he had supplied her at intervals since 2010 when the two of them were in frequent contact regarding challenges to the August 2010 election results.

“This is nothing new. I’m not even all that up in arms about it, all by itself,” Harris said, relating the current issue to a series of gaffes that he says have bedeviled the last several elections in Shelby County, usually to the disadvantage of Democrats. He shies away from accusing anyone of intentional illegality (though reserving judgment on the matter) and suggests that factors of incompetent administration and malfunctioning technology are involved.

And the real root of the problem he imputes to Republican aggressiveness in purging the voter rolls, something that coincides with the GOP’s wish, evident also in the passage of photo-ID legislation, to prune away at the Democratic voter base.

Given the residual misgivings of local Democrats about election results in recent years (“there’s been something going wrong with every election since 2006,” alleges Darrick Harris), the sensitivity of this year’s voting choices (on everything from county offices to suburban school districts to the presidency), and an apparent acknowledgment on everybody’s part that some retooling is in order for the county’s election processes, it is unlikely that the current issue will just fade away.

Holden and Meyers noted that the members of their IT staff had largely dispersed for the Memorial Day weekend but would be back on duty by Tuesday. At which time they may have some ‘splaining to do.

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