Election day is just a week away, and campaigns all over the state are ramping up their efforts to get voters to the polls. This isn’t unusual, in fact it happens every election cycle. What is unusual is that several campaigns have reported reluctance by some voters to participate in early voting here in Shelby County. It seems lack of confidence in the process after the problems experienced in August has caused many voters to not only question the process, but also fear that the security of their vote may be in jeopardy.
It’s been a difficult year for Tennesseans concerned about election transparency. The State Legislature both delayed and gutted the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act (see the votes House | Senate) in early February. Most people had forgotten about the gutting of TVCA by the Statewide Primary election in August, but problems reported around the state, most notably in Shelby County, brought the issue of election transparency back to the forefront of many voters minds.
As a result of the problems experienced in Shelby County, followed by what appeared to casual observers as persistent hedging and unnecessary barriers to oversight by the Shelby County Election Commission, the six Democratic countywide candidates on the ballot initiated a lawsuit…well, actually a couple. Eventually it landed in court before Chancery Judge Arnold Goldin.
On Friday, October 1st, Judge Goldin told the Election Commission to turn over evidence requested by the plaintiff. This resulted in a Monday afternoon document dump that included 8.3 million pages of digital documents. Just two days later Judge Goldin dismissed the case stating
“the plaintiffs’ proofs certainly pointed out imperfections in this election,” they were unable to prove they “rise to the level of fraud or illegality” such that results should be thrown out.
Goldin said trustee candidate Regina Morrison Newman and her eight fellow plaintiffs, all of them Democrats, had not met “the burden of proving (that) fraud and illegality so permeated the election to make it incurably uncertain.”
While Goldin may not acknowledge the uncertainty that many voters feel in the wake of the August election, early voting numbers do.
Through October 23rd 57509 people out of 602793 registered voters have cast votes in Shelby County. However, looking at the graphs below, something is more than a little skewed.
So where are all the African American voters? Lots of people are asking that question. Heck, I’d like to know too.
Local pundits seem to think this is just a “wave” election coming to its natural conclusion. While that may fit the national narrative there’s more to it than that. Sure, the unusually high number of voters in largely Republican and white areas indicates a kind of “wave”, but by any measure there aren’t enough of them in the county to turn the tide. So just what is going on?
Over the past few days I’ve received several reports of people canvassing neighborhoods stating that the voters they spoke with distrusted Early Voting. Their rationale, the problems with the August elections that many feel were far worse than reported by the Election Commission. If confusion and lack of transparency breed distrust, here in Shelby County we’ve got that and more.
It doesn’t matter if their suspicions are true or not. Perception becomes reality and for many voters, the jury is still out on what happened in August. Despite the protestations of the Election Commission, the perception out there is that the last election was stolen. Furthermore, despite the Election Commission’s efforts to explain and answer charges, they have released next to nothing, other than a tersely worded response to charges that can be found here. In effect, the Election Commission has said, “you can’t prove we did anything wrong but this”, which does nothing but stoke fears and enflame prejudices.
In preparation for this post I asked Elections Administrator Richard Holden two questions:
1. If he had seen a surge in poll worker applications since this article published.
2. What additional steps the Election Commission has put in place to ensure the problems experienced in August don’t happen again.
Holden indicated that they had not seen a surge of qualified poll workers since the 10/13 article. To the second question Holden said the problems faced in August had been addressed and there were several other locally and nationally organized protections in place and the Election Commission was working on videos of the process to ensure the public better understands how an election is conducted.
All this is well and good, but the reality is the Election Commission is fighting a perception war and losing badly. Their decision to put up roadblocks early on in the investigation made it look like they were defending the County against releasing what should be public information. Add that to long-held questions about the security of electronic voting machines and you have a recipe for disaster.
The findings here are not intended to give shelter to those responsible for elections in Shelby County. Without having completed a thorough investigation of the entire election system, it is impossible to offer an opinion regarding the competence with which the August election or other elections have been handled in Shelby County. Nonetheless, facts discovered during this limited criminal investigation do make it clear that more than one method of performing more thorough testing of voter data prior to an election day was available to the SCEC for the August election. It is obvious that although electronic systems may have substantial benefits, they also expose the SCEC to the risk of system-wide errors caused by a simple, momentary lapse. With this in mind, it is incumbent upon all responsible officials to make the extraordinary efforts demanded by the citizenry to avoid such lapses.
I think a lot of people are still waiting for those extraordinary efforts.
So now the question is, what happens if the polls are overrun with voters on election day? We already know that the Election Commission is struggling to find qualified poll workers, which seems odd considering the rate of unemployment in the county. But maybe this too is an example of the norm in many government structures in Tennessee, which seem to have a “come ‘an get it” attitude rather than simply making their structures more transparent, which is what it will take to regain the confidence lost in the Aftermath of August.
What happens next? I have no idea, but here’s to hoping that people don’t give up on the process and not show up. That won’t solve anything. The solution is to participate in the process and demand transparency when problems occur. The solution is for appointed officials in charge of our elections to act like they’re elected, and directly responsible to the people, because ultimately, they are. In the end we have to have faith even when our faith has been shaken, and resolve that if it happens again there will be hell to pay.
Anything less is surrender.