Politics » Politics Feature

Clear as Mud

The Shelby County Election Commission chairman tries to explain recent glitches, but confusion remains.



The Shelby County Election Commission is under attack in some quarters, under suspicion in various others, and understood hardly at all in the explanations it has given out regarding several gaffes and mysteries arising from its supervision of the election process this year.

Let me posit right away: I do not regard any member of the election commission — chairman Robert Meyers, Steve Stamson, and Dee Nollner among the Republicans; Norma Lester and George Monger, the Democrats — as being anything less than intelligent, dedicated, and honest public servants.

I would say the same for the commission's director, Rich Holden, and for the rest of his professional staff.

I would qualify all of this further by saying that none of the above are as unbiased as they might think they are, and all of them are more than capable of interpreting events and motives (their own as well as others') through the partisan lenses they originally brought with them to the task. But this just attests to their membership in the human species — an imperfect and imperfectible breed, perhaps particularly in its political component.

In any case, several matters involving the election commission have provoked community tempers of late and generated some intense misunderstandings.

The most recent of these concerned the commission's recent purge of the Shelby County rolls. A "reclassification" it was called in some quarters, and here and there observers made sense of it. To give credit where credit is due, The Commercial Appeal's Zach McMillin provided a reasonably cogent exegesis a couple of weeks back, but the commission, speaking for itself, has been mystifying and opaque in its efforts to explain.

So it was that veteran pollster/analyst Berje Yacoubian examined the commission's own data, which showed an apparent drop in the Shelby County voter rolls of some 170,593 voters, or 28.5 percent, over the two-year period since the elections of 2010.

As Yacoubian noted ("A Purge Too Far") in last week's Flyer, election commissioners regularly (every two years, in fact) "purge" the voter rolls for various reasons — among them, convictions for felonies, deaths, changes of address, and demonstrable failure to vote over a sustained period: "Such purging," Yacoubian wrote, "when done legitimately and without bias, would usually result in reducing the roster's size by about 1 percent to 3 percent at most."

But the new purging figures, said Yacoubian, seemed "abnormally large, out-of-nowhere ... irrational," and "must be resolved now" or perhaps "Justice Department officials [should] send in experts who can get to the bottom of this."

The pollster was not alone in such a suggestion. In recent weeks, calls for an investigation of election commission actions have come from Democratic officials such as U.S. representative Steve Cohen and state senator Jim Kyle. The difference is that, as his client record demonstrates, Yacoubian's background is non- or bipartisan.

The Flyer asked chairman Meyers, who clearly felt aggrieved by what he considered unjust criticism, to respond, by way of his own Viewpoint piece. Though he never quite wove it all together in a sustained essay as Yacoubian had, Meyers took three different stabs at a statement.

What follows is the chairman's latest version: "Mr. Yacoubian is correct that the Shelby County Election Commission reports 431,054 registered voters in Shelby County. This is the correct number of 'active' registered voters in Shelby County."

Meyers' then supplies his qualifier: "Historically, the Election Commission report on the number of registered has included both 'active' and 'inactive' voters because both are eligible to vote. However, Tennessee statute, T.C.A. § 2-2-106 (g) states that 'voter registrations that are inactive pursuant to the provisions of this section shall not be included in a county's total of registered voters.'"

What he's saying is that state law has changed and now requires election commissions to compile lists of registered voters differently. As Meyers interprets it, only "active" voters (who would seem to be those who have cast ballots in the election or elections immediately past) are to be totaled in the "registered" rolls.

Meyers goes on to say that the county's eligible voters, however, include not just those officially active ones but an additional "151,826 'inactive' voters" who "are not included in the reported number of total registered voters."

Elsewhere, Meyers has defined "inactive" voters as those who have not voted in the last two federal elections, though presumably people who have voted in recent non-federal elections are not considered "inactive." Or are they? This is one of several points that still need clarification.

In any case, Meyers continues: "Both 'active' and 'inactive' designations are administrative and do not affect those voters' right to vote. By not including the 'inactive' voters in our reported totals we were merely following the law."

And then a grace note: "Mr. Yacoubian was unaware in the change in the way the Election Commission reported registered voters when he obtained the data."

Let us say that Mr. Yacoubian has not been alone in being unaware of such a change in the way registered voters' figures have been reported. If past election commissions reported "active" and "inactive" voters together as eligible, a category to be contrasted with purged or ineligible voters, that was a classification that made sense to lay minds.

Whether it's the law's fault or the commission's fault for causing only one component of the county's eligible voters to be reported publicly (and doing so without full and complete explanation in advance), it's still a fault, breeding potential confusion and, as Yacoubian suggested, negative voter reaction, up to and including charges of fraud.

Unfair? Unreasonable? Yes, probably, but those adjectives describe attitudes on both sides of the issue and the political divide. In any case, as SCEC director Holden acknowledges, "Maybe we didn't explain it properly."

For the record, as chairman Meyers amplifies, "the total number of registered voters in Shelby County as of June 2012 is really 582,000," representing a drop of only 19,767 voters in the latest purge.

As Democratic election commissioner Lester said this week in what was meant to be a reassuring e-mail communication to her network about the purge and other matters, "The Election Commission is charged with compliance to Federal, State, and local laws but it should be with full transparency and in the best interest of the public. Mass changes of any nature should be well published with opportunity for community input."

One other matter which has vexed the public consciousness of late: a charge by Seattle blogger/activist Bev Harris that 488 African Americans in Shelby County had been singled out to have their voting histories erased — a fact that would bring them that much closer to being purge-worthy.

Holden has explained (and Lester and others give him credit for good faith) that the voting histories for these individuals were never altered but that a report sheet on a recent special election runoff in a predominantly black district (which is where, allegedly, the names came from) was subject to a computer glitch.

Apparently, an extra space was entered into the form after each name, and that little add-on tick of a finger caused the voting histories in that particular report — but not in the commission's actual records — to fall off.

Or something like that. But the rest of us should not have to puzzle out such matters on the basis of quasi-technical explanations. Public confidence is eroded by too many glitches — like the one on election day in August 2010 that erroneously showed several hundred voters to have early-voted already and caused them, initially, to be turned away at the polls.

After a while, the claims of "woopsie" begin to look disingenuous.

Election commissioner Monger has insisted that the commission revamp its system to eliminate such errors. Fair enough. It wouldn't hurt, either, to expand or upgrade the commission's public-information component to establish reliable and consistent communications with the voters.

As for questionable laws passed in Nashville that the commission has to obey? (Photo IDs, anyone?) Well now, that's just unfortunate.

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