Shelby County Democratic chairman Corey Strong (right) and other Democrats announcing lawsuit at Friday press conference
The two lawsuits filed in Chancery Court this week on behalf of Shelby County Democrats and the NAACP, respectively, are but the latest of several challenges to the election authorities of Shelby County in recent years.
The two suits are both scheduled for emergency hearing on Monday. One — filed by Myron Lowery and local Democratic chair Corey Strong — is slated for hearing by Chancellor JoeDale L. Jenkins at 10:30 a.m. The other, filed by the NAACP, is scheduled in the court of Chancellor Jim Kyle. When things are sorted out Monday, it is possible that the suits will be combined for joint hearing under a single chancellor.
Both suits merit expedited status because what is at stake are the rules under which early voting for the forthcoming county general election. The early voting period is July 13-July 28.
Like previous challenges over the years — notably a mass legal action filed by almost all of the party’s losing candidates in the county general election of 2010 — the suits filed Friday reflect a general skepticism regarding the electoral process and a disbelief in the fairness of the system at large.
That 2010 legal action, which ended without satisfaction for the plaintiffs, was accompanied by a series of mass protests
and was launched in the aftermath of a vote that saw Republicans prevail in a virtual sweep despite a general consensus locally that Democrats had become the county’s majority party through demographic change. Except for isolated victories by a few Democrats, GOP sweeps of county elections have become the rule, not the exception, ever since.
This was despite the fact that in 2009, then county Republican chairman Lang Wiseman
, believing GOP election domination had already passed its peak, floated the idea of petitioning the Election Commission to discontinue primaries for county office, which the Republican Party of Shelby County had inaugurated in 1992, forcing the Democrats to follow suit with their own county primaries two years later.
Talk in Republican circles of discontinuing local primaries subsided after the 2010 election results, and the simultaneous advent of a Republican majority statewide, after the legislative elections of 2008, had meanwhile resulted in a mandated 3-2 edge in favor of Republicans in all 95 of the state’s counties, including Shelby.
Beyond the unexpected domination of Republicans in countywide voting were several certifiable missteps that sullied the reputation of the county’s election authorities. As summarized in late 2013 in a Flyer article
about a veritable deluge of errors:
...Among [them] are the Election Day glitch of August 2010 which resulted in hundreds of voters being incorrectly turned away as they arrived to vote; a failure in 2012 to provide correct ballots for local elections that jibed with post-census redistricting, resulting in a judicial invalidation of a Shelby County School Board race; a lack of responsiveness to public inquiries and an inefficient management of staff; and a recent audit report pinpointing improper cash management and a variety of other errors of commission or omission….
Since then numerous questions have been raised about the dependability of the election machinery in use in county elections, the motives and accuracy of various purges of the voter rolls, and the action of the state’s legislative Republican super-majority in establishing requirements for voters to show photo IDs prior to voting.
All of it bespeaks a pattern of official discrimination and of favoritism to Republicans, many Democrats believe; Republicans say the election results favoring the GOP speak for themselves, and the issue is one of better Republican candidates, capable of getting crossover votes from Democrats and independents.
The current imbroglio occurs amid talk of a Democratic “blue wave” both nationally and locally. The two lawsuits are directed against both a decision about the time and place of early voting sites announced at a June 21 meeting of the Election Commission and a change in that schedule made at a public meeting of last Friday at the EC’s Nixon Drive site in Shelby Farms.
The suits seek a judicial declaration that advance planning before the two meetings constituted “a violation of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act” and that consequently the “site list, days of operation and time of operation” should be voided and replaced by the early voting schedule in effect previous to the May 1, 2018 county primary election.
That May list was of 21 sites, all of which were open for the same number of days during early voting for the county primaries. At its meeting of June 21st the Election commission added five sites, a majority of which were in areas that habitually vote Republican and designated the AgriCenter in Shelby Farms as a central site which would be open for four more days than the other “satellite” sites.
That decision generated a barrage of criticism from Democrats — most of it recapitulated during a press conference on Friday announcing the lawsuits. The Election Commission should concern itself with only one purpose, local Democratic chair Corey Strong said on Friday — “to give people the vote.”
He said that a “compromise” solution reached last Friday naming two full-time early voting sites, one in a Democratic area, another in a Republican area, and a third in the EC’s Shelby Farms office itself was even more imbalanced in the GOP’s favor than the June 21st list, and he implied that the outcome had been pre-arranged via closed-door meetings.
Speaking in favor of the suits, London Lamar, president of the state’s Young Democrats said 21 sites employed for the May 1st election worked fine and had increased turnout and that the Election Commission’s change in early-voting sites “with two weeks to go” had been “a blatant form of voter disenfranchisement favoring the Republican Party.”
Another backer of the suits, state Representative G.A. Hardaway, invoked the principle of “one man, one vote” and said, “Let the people vote. It’s that simple!”