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VOL. 121 | NO. 150 | Monday, July 31, 2006

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH: New machines + extra races = more than long lines

By Andy Meek

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ELECTION SPECIAL REPORT -- By now, Shelby County's 604,390 registered voters no doubt have heard the warning about the slow-moving lines come Election Day: Vote as early as you can.

But there's a less obvious reason why everyone from state election officials to members of the Shelby County Election Commission to the candidates themselves are urging people not to postpone their trip to the polls Aug. 3.

Long lines, in fact, are only a byproduct of the reason. Election workers insist anyone who shows up Thursday to cast a ballot will get to do so, but it's becoming difficult to reconcile that scenario with the mathematics of the situation.

In other words, it appears likely that if voter turnout even slightly exceeds what's being predicted for Thursday, the county's 279 precincts are going to be hard-pressed to accommodate every voter who wants to vote.

Perfect storm

Speculation about that scenario is occurring in some official circles because of a convergence of unavoidable factors this year. They include the debut of new electronic voting machines, unfamiliar races such as the Charter Commission for Memphis voters to consider, and the longest-ever ballot in Shelby County history that will have to be navigated.

"I think it's going to be very, very tight," Rich Holden, a member of the county's board of election commissioners, said of how Thursday could turn out.

Shelby County is employing 1,500 new Diebold electronic voting machines this year, but slightly fewer than 1,300 will actually be in use on Election Day. The rest were used during the early voting period and cannot be put back into commission per federal law.

"We have auditing of the machines, for example, which involves making sure they're all zeroed and putting numbered seals on every machine," Holden said.

Open the floodgates

As of Thursday, July 27, more than 10 percent of registered Shelby voters had participated in early voting. James Johnson, the county's election administrator, said the norm in Shelby County is for one-third of voters to vote early and two-thirds to show up on Election Day.

Which means a turnout of 30 percent – as well as long lines and other hiccups associated with the mathematical limits of the Aug. 3 vote – could be a real possibility.

"Yes, we've thought about those things, we've been concerned about those things," said state election coordinator Brook Thompson. "I don't know exactly what we can do to mitigate that other than to warn the public and to encourage them to vote early."

Minute by minute

Thirty percent turnout for the August election would equate to roughly 180,000 voters. Subtracting the roughly 12 percent who voted early leaves almost 110,000 people to accommodate on Election Day itself, when polls are scheduled to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Disperse voters evenly across the available 1,300 voting machines, assume 10 minutes for each ballot, and they might – might – all be finished in 14 hours – or by about 9 p.m.

That, of course, depends on a few basic assumptions – that no voting machines will malfunction, that voters are equally dispersed at each precinct and that no one takes longer than 10 minutes to complete each ballot. It also assumes no one will be deterred by long lines at the polls, choosing to not vote altogether.

But what happens if each voter takes 12 minutes instead of 10? That would add four more hours to the 12-hour period already allotted. Make it 15 minutes to finish the ballot, and the result is an almost 20-hour election – stretching to well past midnight.

And that's just with 30 percent turnout, barely above the figure election officials are confident will be reached.

"You go higher than that, and it starts to make you nervous, doesn't it?" Holden said.

'Root for low turnout'

No one is publicly suggesting voters might be turned away or that a situation has been created to keep a certain percentage from voting. Rather, people like Shelby County Commission candidate Steve Mulroy, a Democrat, have begun raising questions about the mathematical limits of the Aug. 3 election.

"This is one of those rare cases you might want to root for low turnout," he said. "I just had lunch today with a state election commissioner, in fact, who said early votes are generally 20 percent of the total vote. And if that's true, then we will definitely have a meltdown."

Said Tom Leatherwood, a Republican who's running for re-election as Shelby County Register: "The voters need to know this is a situation where it strongly appears that it's mathematically impossible for every likely voter to vote on Election Day.

"And we haven't been blindsided by this; people have been talking about this possibly for a long time."

By Tennessee law, no one in line by 7 p.m. on Election Day can be turned away. So Thompson said precinct officials will place an election worker at the end of the line of voters once 7 p.m. rolls around.

"Nobody behind that person can vote, and everybody in front of that person can, irrespective of how long it takes," he said.

"This is not just in Memphis – we're concerned about how big the ballot is everywhere. And there's nothing we can do about that. State law requires that certain things be on this August ballot, so it's going to take people a while to vote."

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