Politics » Politics Feature

Nightwatch: Keeping Vigil at the Election Commission



For at least a few hours Thursday night, 157 Poplar was the epicenter of the Shelby County political universe. That's the address of the Election Commission, and it was here that candidates, supporters, and members of the media massed to get the election results as they were made available.

At  7 p.m., as polling precincts closed throughout the county, the decently sized crowd seemed tense, waiting for results to begin to trickle in. Two supporters of judicial candidate Regina Newman commented that they didn't have fingernails left to chew on. Supporters of other campaigns made similar jokes to downplay their nervousness. Members of the press paced the halls anxiously trying to glean any information.

At 740 p.m. came an announcement of further delay: There were reportedly still some lines in precincts across the county, and results were being held back to avoid affecting the votes of those still waiting in line.

That announcement amped up an  already edgy room. 

Relief came shortly after 8 p.m., when the unofficial absentee and early-voting results were released. As workers for the election commission passed out the 38 pages of results reports, the crowd massed, then as individuals got theirs,  broke like a wave, dispersing across the building to peruse the results. People rifled through pages, flipped open their cell phones, and starting making their good news/bad news calls to points across the county.. Press representatives were simultaneously doing the same. The diaspora of information was quick, and within minutes TV stations began showing the results. Everybody wad advised that, for bettered or for worse, these were "just the early-voting results."

A projector was set up in a large jury-summons room, and for the rest of the night the results were shown on the screen.   As people began figuring out that this was quicker and easier than scanning the printouts, the chairs in the jury-summons room began filling up, and all eyes were on the screen , fixing on its slowly scrolling numbers.

AMONG THE CANDIDATES there Thursday night was city councilman Myron Lowery, who was up big in his bid for the newly minted Charter Commission and who ultimately won a seat. Lowery was quick to point out that he had the most votes of any Charter Commission candidate. He stayed at the commission long enough to make sure the good news was complete. When he left the building, he bid the various supporters of other campaigns good luck that evening and was congratulated in return. Lowery walked out of the room to applause.

Outside the newly elected Lowery said he was ready to get to the work of the Charter Commission, particularly on the issues of term limits for elected officials and staggered terms for council members. He also mentioned  the possibility of contracting the size of the City Council, reappraising the powers of the mayor, and prohibiting the sale of Memphis Light, Gas and Water "without a referendum from the voters." The Commission should hold a series of public meetings, he said.

Comparing  his Commission campaign to others he has run, Lowery said, "I campaigned the same way. It was grass-roots. I did not have one sign up at any of the early-voting places. I did not have one sign up at any of the polling places today. Signs don't win elections. There were too many signs out here." Then he was gone.

A LITTLE BIT LATER, Election Commissioner Rich Holden was talking about the federal agents in Shelby County on election day, saying that the commission had been informed  by the Department of Justice that there would be two people from the Civil Rights Division observing the Shelby County election process, "which is the first time that's occurred in the State of Tennessee" Said Holden:. "They picked a dozen precincts that were representative of what they were looking for, which was criteria they did not inform us of. The specifics we do not know, but they observed, we did not get any feedback positive or negative."

Holden had a significant qualifier. "They didn't send 40 people. If they thought there were significant problems, they would have sent a significant quantity of people. They were basically observing our processes and procedures and making sure everybody was given equal rights." The commissioner said he didn't know if or when a Department of Justice report on the day's observations would be forthcoming.

Candidates came and went as the night progressed -- including a briefly appearing Bren Olswanger, former reality-show TV contestant from The Apprentice and now a first-time political candidate, running for a General Sessions judgeship. As on The Apprentice, Bren Olswanger was  bedecked in a dapper bowtie. (As on the show, he lost.)

Another first timer Thursday night was19-year-old  Deangelo Pegues, a candidate for a seat on the Shelby County Commission.   Looking composed in a sharp suit, his high school ring glittering in counterpart to his smile, Pegues maintained an unflagging optimism despite the fact that, with two-thirds of the precincts in,  he was  trailing Republican opponent Mike Carpenter 82 percent to 17 percent.

Pegues, who said taxes and crime were his chief concerns,  speculated that his friends were probably "at the movies, preparing for school, at the house asleep,  maybe." 

He stayed upbeat despite the unfavorable numbers. . When asked what would be next for him if he did, in fact, lose, Pegues was never-say-die: "Hopefully, I'll win." If he did lose, he finally said, he would work with the commission as a "concerned citizen," and look for another opportunity later.

Gale Jones Carson, the well-known local head of the Shelby County Democrats' coordinated election campaign, was nearby checking on the election results. Chatting up Pegues, whom she had not met before. Carson advised him of the dangers of running   as an independent  in a heavily Republican area.  Pegues responded: "I wanted to run as an independent to represent the people and not a specific party."

Warren Cole, a poll watcher for John Willingham's mayoral campaign, was at the commission until late Thursday night, "checking the numbers, making sure all the precincts that reported [that] there were no inequities involved." Concerning the early-voting numbers, Cole said he was "suspicious" and said he "didn't feel comfortable with the numbers," noting the discrepancy between new, expensive voting machines and the lines that seemed longer rather than shorter at voting stations. He was troubled by that and the delays in reporting.

At the time Willingham was trailing by a hefty percentage to opponent Democrat A C Wharton. "Something just don't feel right right now," Cole said. He suggested that in the coming weeks, he, along with others, would be looking carefully at the raw election data. Before that, however, he would "get a little rest in, let my mind rest, my body and soul, then follow up on my instincts."

As the clock hand swept toward midnight and as the size of the once flourishing congregation of people at the election commission gradually dwindled, both the departees and those still lingering clearly  fighting the fatigue at the end of another election season, that sounded like good advice.

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