Politics » Politics Feature

A Vote of "No Confidence"

Election Commission chairman calls a mandate for optical-scan voting "insanity."



The Voter Confidence Act passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2008 is a creation of "the liberal wing of the liberal party" and a "bad idea," according to Bill Giannini, the chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission.

In particular, said Giannini in the course of remarks Monday night to members of the Southeast Shelby Republican Club at Perkins Restaurant on Germantown Parkway, It would be insanity to go back to paper ballots." As Giannini noted, the law mandates statewide voting in 2010 by optical scanning machines — a process in which paper ballots are read and tabulated electronically, with the originals maintained for possible recount purposes as a "paper trail."

The paper costs by themselves would be "astronomical," said Giannini, who argued further that to carry out the mandate next year requires state-of-the-art optical-scanning devices certified by both the state and federal governments and that "no such animal" exists.

Giannini, a former chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party, thus concurred with arguments made by state Election Coordinator Mark Goins and by Secretary of State Tre Hargett. Both are Republicans who ascended to their offices as a consequence of Republican victories in 2008 legislative races that gave the GOP a majority in both houses of the legislature.

The Voter Confidence Act has been stoutly defended by leading Democrats, including state House Majority Leader Gary Odom of Nashville and state Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester, who maintain that Republicans are using sham arguments — having to do with costs and the rigidity of the Act's standards for voting machines — to delay implementation of the act.

Spokespersons for the two parties continue to debate these points, with the Democrats maintaining that federal funds have been made available for the statewide change-over under the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and that machinery meeting the standards set forth by the act is available.

Giannini contended that even the Democratic members of the local Election Commission agreed that to try to implement the act next year would be impractical. As the law stands, Shelby County has "no choice but to comply," Giannini said, but it is clear that, both locally and statewide, the issue remains in doubt as to whether next year's elections will be held in accordance with the act.

Meanwhile, the electronic voting machines now in use in Shelby County are acceptably accurate, argued Giannini, who maintained that to rig a vote with them would necessitate "a conspiracy of unbelievable magnitude."

Another immediate concern of the local commission is to update voter rolls, which still contain the names of numerous deceased people, according to Giannini. He said there might be "forty or fifty thousand names" that shouldn't be on the rolls for one reason or another.

Yet another priority is to create at least two new early voting sites in eastern Shelby County, Giannini said. He maintained that the current pattern of 12 "Democratic" sites and six "Republican" sites is inequitable.

Giannini also advocated stricter voter ID measures to prevent fraud and called for Republican pollworkers to volunteer for deployment at inner-city precinct locations. He was optimistic that instant runoff voting, approved in a countywide referendum last year, could streamline elections and curtail expenses but said implementing such voting would not be feasible by next year.

On the big issue of the day, whether and when there will be a special election to succeed Mayor Willie Herenton, Giannini acknowledged that Herenton had apparently informed media people on Monday that he'd be leaving the office on July 30th, but there was still a hitch.

"We can't do a thing until we get certification from the City Council of the minutes of their last meeting," he said. Giannini referred to the meeting two weeks ago at which the council officially declared a mayoral vacancy as of July 31st. An effort to pass a "same-night minutes" resolution failed by one vote, however, and, as the Election Commission head said at the time, "that ties our hands."

Pending City Council approval this week of the minutes from that previous meeting, the Election Commission is scheduled to meet on Thursday to consider establishing a special-election date.

• The question of a mayoral election, and what to do about it, was one of the matters taken up last Thursday night at a meeting of the Shelby County Democratic executive committee, which briefly considered the question of endorsing a candidate. Several formats for doing so were reviewed, including a straw poll, a forum, and an endorsement convention as such, but the matter was tabled without a conclusion being reached.

The meeting, held at the IBEW Union Hall on Madison Avenue, was attended by peripatetic state Democratic chairman Chip Forrester of Nashville, who has been much on the road of late, meeting with local party groups statewide. Forrester addressed the assembled Democrats on his hopes for recovering Democratic control of the Tennessee legislature in 2010.

The chairman vowed to "field a candidate against every Republican in the state" next year and to employ to that end "tools from the Obama playbook," including various kinds of social networking used in President Obama's successful 2008 election campaign.

Forrester said the priorities of the 2010 legislative campaign would conform to a "two-tier" strategy devised by himself and Mike Turner, caucus chairman of the House Democrats.

After suffering a period of estrangement from Governor Phil Bredesen immediately following his upset chairmanship victory in January over a candidate supported by the governor, Forrester has since made peace with Bredesen. He told the Shelby County Democrats that Bredesen and former 9th District congressman Harold Ford would co-chair the state Democrats' forthcoming Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Nashville on August 29th, with a keynote speaker to be announced later.

The chairman made a brief appearance on Friday at a press conference at Quetzal restaurant on Union and called to push for implementation of a national health-care plan timed to coincide with simultaneous "tea party" meetings held locally by conservative opponents of federally administered health-care plans.

Appearing with Forrester at the press conference were lawyer Sheree Hoffman, a breast cancer survivor, and Art Sutherland, retired founder of the Sutherland Heart Clinic and member of Physicians for a National Health Program, a national group endorsing single payer health reform.

• Who'd-a-thunk-it department: "The American Conservative Union asked FedEx for a check for $2 million to $3 million in return for the group's support in a bitter legislative dispute, then the group's chairman flipped and sided with UPS after FedEx refused to pay."

So went one of those "stranger than fiction" accounts — this one appearing last week on Politico.com, which went on to allege the existence of a formal letter from the ACU offering to produce "op-eds and articles" supporting FedEx's position in opposition to its truck routes coming under regulations of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The company's airline routes are not under NLRB authority.

For more than a year, FedEx has been fighting congressional action to make the change in supervision and has been locked in a lobbying struggle over the issue with rival UPS.

After FedEx spurned the ACU overtures of support — which Politico called evidence of the "pay to play" syndrome — ACU officials made statements seeming to support UPS' side in the controversy, prompting Maury Lane, FedEx's director of corporate communications, to say, "Clearly, the ACU shopped their beliefs, and UPS bought."

Not so, countered Dennis E. Whitefield, executive vice president of ACU. In a statement this week, Whitefield said Politico's account was erroneous, that his organization made no promises of support in return for financial contributions, and said further: "ACU does not support moving businesses under the jurisdiction of the NLRB or expanding the federal government's power, reach, or authority under the NLRB. ... ACU stands with the policy that FedEx should not be placed under the NLRB."

The issue of FedEx jurisdiction over FedEx operations is one which saw 9th District congressman Steve Cohen part with the Democratic leadership in debate last year. Cohen made statements in support of the FedEx position.

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