It may be too late in the election year for an October surprise (i.e., some unexpected development that stands the pending political situation on its head), but the calendar clearly allows for a November surprise, and, courtesy of the Shelby County Election Commission, we have one.
- Linda Phillips
The SCEC, having been foiled last month in its efforts to get County Commission funding for new ballot-marking election devices from the ES&S Company, has done what one critic calls "an end-run" around the commission, buying three of the ES&S devices using its own funds.
In declining to purchase the ES&S ballot-marking devices, the County Commission had made its preferences clear in that it favored devices equipped for hand-marked paper ballots.
In a matter-of-fact press release issued Monday, the Election Commission administrator's office attempted to make the case that it had no choice but to purchase the new machines, inasmuch as the old machines used by Collierville in the city's first round of elections earlier this month were tied up, pending certification on November 23rd of the November 3rd results.
Collierville requires runoff elections in cases where candidates don't receive majorities originally, and two seats on the city's Board of Aldermen will have to be resolved that way, with early voting for the runoffs beginning on Wednesday of this week.
"We simply had no choice but to purchase three of the machines to get us through Collierville's early voting period," Election Administrator Linda Phillips said in the news release, pointing out that the Election Commission had previously voted 4-1 in favor of the ES&S ballot-marking devices before encountering resistance from the County Commission.
The SCEC press release goes on to say that "[b]y Election Day for the runoff, which will be held December 8th, the older machines voters have been using for years, will be available."
And further: "The ballot-marking devices selected by the commissioners are used in conjunction with scanners that are also capable of scanning voter-marked paper ballots. There will be a ballot-on-demand printer capable of printing ballots on demand for those who want to use hand-marked paper ballots.
"If a voter would prefer to vote on paper that ballot will be printed on the spot."
Steve Mulroy, a University of Memphis law professor and former county commissioner, is a prominent local advocate of the paper-marked-ballot system of voting, and he expressed skepticism about the election administrator's decision to purchase the three new machines and her rationale for doing do, which he termed an "excuse."
Mulroy observed: "Note they also said that they would have a ballot-on-demand printer available during early voting, so that anyone who wanted to just vote by a hand-marked paper ballot could do so.
"Given that, why could they not just go with the ballot-on-demand printer for early voting? They were already going to have one. That would've sufficed by itself. It would cost less money. It would not require using the SCEC slush fund to buy voting machines that the local funding body has by resolution rejected three times — in January, April, and October.
"The answer," said Mulroy, "may be that they are determined to sneak in their ballot-marking devices by hook or by crook."
He said the purchase was "a clever attempt to do an end-run around the County Commission's authority, starting a process of doing BMDs by dribs and drabs, to the point that they will be able to say to you later on, 'Hey, we already have a number of these things anyway. You might as well just go ahead and approve what we originally suggested, because otherwise these machines won't be compatible.'"
Suggesting there were other alternatives available, Mulroy said, "I'm also wondering just how large a slush fund SCEC has that it can buy multiple pieces of expensive equipment without going through the normal funding process?"
Members of the County Commission are sure to have similar questions in mind and will no doubt be ready to express them when the commission meets in committee sessions on Wednesday.