Other political events were going on Monday evening, at the beginning of a week that will experience several showdowns on the way to the August 2nd county general election and state/federal primaries, early voting for which will begin this Friday, July 13th, at 11 a.m.
But the main event (or, strictly speaking, series of events) this week began happening Monday in the courtroom of Chancellor JoeDae L. Jenkins, where two lawsuits were being heard that challenged the Election Commission's plans for the aforesaid early voting period, scheduled to run from July 13th to July 28th.
The Monday Chancery Court hearing ran late, a fact that no doubt somewhat reduced a still considerable and lively audience that evening for a sprightly, issue-driven debate between Tami Sawyer and Sam Goff, the Democratic and Republican candidates, respectively, for the District 7 seat on the Shelby County Commission.
But the outcome of the early voting lawsuits was clearly the most eagerly anticipated event of the week. That was especially so, given the fact that in recent elections a majority or near-majority of the county's voters have cast their ballots early.
At stake in the litigation were vital issues of where and when early voting would take place, with lawyers representing the Shelby County Democratic Party and the NAACP arguing that the Election Commission's announced procedures were, in effect, prejudicial to the interests of working-class and traditionally Democratic voters — African Americans, in particular.
There had been no complaints about the early voting process for the May county primaries, in which 21 sites, distributed throughout the county, were utilized for the entire period, at the same times each day. But controversy erupted on June 21st when the Election Commission abruptly announced the addition of five new sites for the August election — most of them in traditionally Republican areas — and compounded things by designating the Agricenter, in suburban Shelby Farms, as a master site of sorts, open for four extra days.
Two public meetings, one at the county commission, another at the Election Commission's Shelby Farms office, did not dispel the objections, though the number of master sites was enlarged to include at least one located in a majority black area. It was up to Chancellor Jenkins on Monday to resolve things, and up to the lawyers — Julie Byrd Ashworth for Myron Lowery and the Democratic Party, Alexander Wharton and Andre Wharton for the NAACP, John Ryder for the Election Commission — to do their best persuading.
The EC's chairman, Robert Meyers, underwent extensive questioning from the plaintiffs, defending the Commission's June 21st alterations as mere efforts to access previously "under-served" populations. Stephen Ross, a witness for the plaintiffs, offered testimony and graphics to demonstrate that the revised pattern of sites and times actually under-served the inner city and black voters in general. Joe Young of the Election Commission testified that it was too late, for logistical and technical reasons, to make any further major changes.
Not so, ruled Jenkins at 9 p.m. on Monday, finding for the plaintiffs and ordering that two more sites — Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church and a site to be chosen in Frayser — should be open throughout early voting and that all early-voting sites (27 in all, by now) begin operations no later than Monday, July 16th, as against an initial starting date of Wednesday, July 18th.
On Tuesday afternoon, the contending parties reconvened in Judge Jenkins’ courtroom , where Jenkins allowed a single modification of his order in favor of the Election Commission position — amending the start date for all early-voting sites from Monday, June 16, to Tuesday, June 17.