The minds of most people concerned about essential threats to the country are still focused on the coronavirus outbreak and the harm it can bring, but there is a dedicated band of activists whose concerns are threats to the validity of our elections through the means we provide for voting.
This is a group that communicates and compares notes with some regularity — mainly these days through Zoom or some other form of virtual web seminars. No few of them are residents of the Memphis and Shelby County communities, and, joined by sympathizers across the nation, they are focusing on the coming round of elections here scheduled for August 6th and on whatever voting apparatus is chosen to count the ballots.
Almost universally, they are suspicious of those in charge, notably of Shelby County Election Administrator Linda Phillips, and of the voting-machine manufacturer, ES&S, that they fear she will steer the contract for Shelby County’s forthcoming voting devices to.
The group, including both local citizens and ballot activists from around the nation, convened again Tuesday night on a Zoom event billed as National Forum on Government Transparency & Election Security, with the subhead “Lifting the Veil of Secrecy on Shelby County Elections.”
Co-moderating the affair were Erika Sugarmon, locally, and Susan Pynchon of AUDIT Elections USA. Among the participants were, locally, Shelby County election commission member Bennie Smith, former EC members George Monger and Norma Lester, former Shelby County commissioner and University of Memphis law professor Steve Mulroy, and, tuning in nationally, Jennifer Cohn; San Francisco attorney, ballot-security writer, and election-integrity advocate Bev Harris of Black Box Voting; John Brakey, co-founder of AUDIT USA; and TV actress Mimi Kennedy.
Though all of the participants were proponents of hand-marked paper ballots as the safest and most effective election mode and a fair amount of commentary was turned in that direction, a good deal of the conversation concerned the background and presumed current attitudes of Administrator Phillips.
A point raised by several of the speakers was what they saw as potential conflicts of interest on Phillips’ part, citing her alleged affinity for products of the ES&S Co., manufacturers of the kind of ballot-marking devices she has expressed an open preference for, and noting, among other things, that the first major purchase she oversaw after being hired as Shelby County Election Administrator in 2016 was for voter-registration software manufactured by her then most recent employer, a company called Everyone Counts.
Everyone Counts, which Phillips left in the spring of 2016 to take the Shelby County job, was one of five companies bidding on a contract for voter-registration software, and Lester, a Democratic Election Commissioner at the time, remembers Phillips as having put a rush on for purchasing the software and making the selection without polling commission members for their preference. Nor did she disclose the fact of having an immediate past relationship with the company.
Harris characterized the Everyone Counts company as one without a reputation in the field at the time and which went out of business shortly thereafter, selling its assets to another buyer.
Philips was also taken to task by Mulroy and others for making unsubstantiated claims that fraud and voter error are both enhanced or even enabled by the use of hand-marked paper ballots
The Election Commission has a meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday of this week to hear Phillips’ recommendation for new voting devices for use in Shelby County elections, and participants in Tuesday's Zoom seminar were encouraged to audit those proceedings and to participate in them to the degree permitted.