Politics » Politics Feature

No Rest for the Weary

For Shelby County and Tennessee, unresolved questions will endure even after the last vote is counted.



In retrospect, the political season of 2012, unremarkable in many ways (especially for the largely uncompetitive nature of the fall ballot), may come to seem pivotal.

One way in which that seems obvious is in regard to the nature of the electoral process itself and how it is conducted. Few people who pay attention to the political process in these parts need to be reminded either of the glitches and rumors of glitches that plagued voting locally or of the state initiatives — notably a controversial photo-ID law — that have complicated matters.

Although the matter has not been precisely quantified, various published reports have suggested that there may have been some inaccuracies during Shelby County's early voting period in matching precincts with the correct ballots — some of the reports suggesting problems along the border of Millington and Lucy, the latter being a small community which Millington is in the process of annexing.

In August, Lucy voters were erroneously given ballots that allowed them to vote on Millington's sales tax referendum to fund a municipal school system. The referendum issue was narrowly defeated on votes from the Lucy precincts. Chancellor Arnold Goldin subsequently disqualified the Lucy votes as being ineligible, allowing for a change in results that empowered Millington, along with five other suburban municipalities, to conduct school board elections in the current election round.

But, in general, the situation has improved considerably over what it was for the August 2nd primary and county general election, according to Joe Weinberg, the amateur sleuth who, in an effort paralleled by fellow activist Steve Ross, found more than 3,000 wrong ballots — an error rate later authenticated by state election officials — in the county's August round of voting.

Weinberg ran a check on the first week of early voting for the November election in Shelby County, finding some 20 possible discrepancies, distributed fairly evenly countywide, and extrapolated that into the number 100 for the likely total occurring in early voting overall — a relatively negligible number.

Given that 232,691 is the total number of early voters reported by Rich Holden, the overall percentage rate of error here is only .0004297544812, which would seem to most people a reasonably minute and inconsequential divergence.

But it's still seen as a problem by Shelby County commissioner Steve Mulroy, a Democrat and law professor at the University of Memphis who had made electoral reform one of his major causes even before he first sought political office in 2006. Mulroy pointed that a mere handful of altered votes in the Millington/Lucy case occasioned a significant difference in the August 2nd results and accounted for a transformation of the final results.

In an election-eve email to the Flyer, Mulroy was a hard sell on anything potentially reassuring about the vote count, contending, "The fact that the errors are scattered throughout the county suggests a systemic problem, which belies SCEC [Shelby County Election Commission] assurances that this problem has been resolved and that this election is running smoothly."

And, though Mulroy did not cite the case, the fact is that what is probably the most pivotal election in Memphis political history — the upset win in 1991 of mayoral contender Willie Herenton over incumbent Dick Hackett to become the city's first elected black mayor — was resolved by a similarly tiny differential.

Out of 247,919 votes cast in that election, Herenton prevailed by the razor-thin margin of 142 votes — a percentage rate of .0005727677184.

Mulroy also expressed concern about a situation stemming from a power outage at the Greater Middle Baptist Church polling site Tuesday night. As Jake Brown, a local adjunct member of the Shelby County Democratic Party, explained it, there were reports that some voters had been forced to vote manually during the outage and that their votes had been entered into the electronic voting machines later by poll workers when power was restored.

Administrator Holden said that was not the case, that, while there had been power outages at two or three early voting sites, the voting machines themselves were battery-operated and protected by stand-alone generators and never ceased to function.

"The only process that needed to be switched from electronic to manual was the ballot application form, not the vote itself," said Holden, who acknowledged that the ballot applications, the processing of which is separate from the voting machines and dependent on a standard power line, were in fact re-entered electronically when power was restored.

Holden estimated that another 140,000 Shelby Countians would end up voting on Tuesday, November 6th, formally election day, but in fact merely the official end of the November round of voting. The proportionally smaller expected turnout on Tuesday continues a trend in recent years whereby early voting has begun to assume a numerically greater importance than election day. (Speaking of which, there were election day reports, unconfirmed at press time, that eligible but "inactive" voters were being turned away at some polls.)

The early voting process is considered by most pundits to favor the Democrats' Get Out the Vote efforts, and, as such, may be the next target of the Republican-controlled Tennessee General Assembly, who in the 2013 session may attempt to legislate a shortening of the process.

The photo-ID law they enacted in 2011, requiring voters to present pictorial evidence of their identities on official documents issued by the federal or state government (any state), has already caused serious fallout — particularly among those who see the law as being aimed not at suppressing voter fraud but at repressing the vote among students, whose campus IDs are disqualified; the elderly, who, past the age of 60, are not required to have photos on their driver's licenses; and minorities, many of whom lack driver's licenses in the first place.

Democrats tend to see those populations as leaning their way. Memphis' Democratic mayor, A C Wharton, perhaps motivated by that view, as well as the fact that the state law makes no allowance for city-issued IDs, came up with the expedient of having the city library system, technically a tributary of state government, issue photo IDs.

The state resisted, but, after a series of judgments and appeals, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in favor of the library cards for 2012 but, going forward, undertook to review the matter in the near term.

Another matter hanging fire concerns the Norris-Todd Law of 2011, which sanctioned new suburban school districts. U.S. District judge Hardy Mays is due at some point to rule on the law's constitutionality. And what he leaves unsaid is sure to be taken up, ASAP, by the aforesaid legislature.

Don't head for the exits just yet. There's more to come.

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