Greg Duckett, the chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission, was doing a media interview three hours after the polls closed on Election Day, August 3rd, when nearly complete returns showed four Democratic candidates apparently on their way to a sweep of clerk's offices.
Not so fast, Duckett thought, as Democrats began to celebrate. There were still 21 precincts remaining to be uploaded to the commission's computer system. Depending on where those precincts were located, the Democratic sweep could turn into a Republican rout.
"Based on my political instincts, when I saw that, I wrote down the numbers and shared them with some Democratic officials who were sitting in the room," said Duckett, one of three Democrats on the five-member Election Commission. "I said this looks good, however we've got these boxes that are still out, and I'm not sure this margin is sufficient to overcome that."
That is exactly what happened a few minutes later. The last precincts to be tallied were primarily in heavily white Republican sections of Cordova, Collierville, and Germantown. The black Democratic candidates who had been leading by as much as 2,000 votes suddenly found themselves losing by margins of roughly 460 to 800 votes, or a fraction of 1 percent of the approximately 140,000 votes cast.
Republican skullduggery? Election Commission incompetence? A coincidence beyond belief?
Lawsuits by the losing candidates notwithstanding, the answers are probably no, no, and no. An examination by the Flyer of a sample of precinct returns shows a predictable and familiar pattern of voting along racial lines in Shelby County.
The Election Commission's performance on Election Day and afterward is another issue. It was marked by slow reporting, computer glitches, and a new array of computer-generated returns that are more unwieldy than older systems. Visitors to the Election Commission's Web site several days after the election were unable to view results. During an interview in his office last week, James Johnson, the administrator of elections, tried to call up the returns but was unable to do so. A few minutes later, the problem was fixed. Johnson blamed the Web service provider and the county's information-technology system.
It appears that Shelby County had a fair and honest election, although only 25 percent of registered voters took part in it. Duckett said the commission's "crude methodology" has determined that the error rate is less than 1 percent, which is also the margin of victory in five recent local races. Ironically, Duckett believes apathy stemming from a feeling that "my vote doesn't matter" is the main cause of low turnouts.