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VOL. 125 | NO. 157 | Friday, August 13, 2010

Dem Leaders Prepare for Legal Challenge

By Bill Dries

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Local Democratic Party leaders are collecting affidavits as a start toward formally challenging the Aug. 5 Shelby County election results.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 people gathered at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall in Midtown this week.

Shelby County Democratic Party chairman Van Turner made it clear the party is looking for people who were turned away at the polls for any reason or those who saw people turned away from the polls.

“We have to have proof. We can’t just go into court … and say, ‘It happened, judge. Believe me,’” Turner told the crowd. “We need to be as specific as possible. If you were told you early-voted and you left the poll, you are our most significant case.”

The party failed in an attempt this week to have the election results thrown out. The results are still being audited and the local Election Commission is expected to meet next week to certify the audited results. That’s the point at which a new legal challenge could begin.

Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini acknowledged problems at some polling places the morning of Election Day. The problem was a mix-up in the electronic polling books used at Election Day precincts that showed some citizens had voted early in July when they had voted early in advance of the May primaries instead. His estimate of the number of voters affected was no more than 3,000.

Giannini called on Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons to refer the matter to an outside agency for investigation. Gibbons did that this week, requesting a probe by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, also sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this week requesting a Justice Department investigation.

The only Democratic nominee not present at Wednesday’s meeting was interim county mayor Joe Ford who lost to Republican Mark Luttrell and conceded.

Democratic contenders Regina Morrison Newman and Minerva Johnican were the candidates who filed this week’s court action. Johnican and Newman were the closest of the Democratic slate in countywide races to their Republican rivals, each losing by less than 5,000 votes.

Meanwhile, local Republican Party chairman Lang Wiseman said he, too, has concerns about the voting problems. He heard from Republicans on Election Day who had similar problems.

“Of course, this is what you expect the Democrats to say. What else do they have to hang their hat on at this point?” Wiseman said. “But it’s a serious issue when there’s a glitch like that. It shouldn’t have happened. And they need to get to the bottom of why it happened. It’s not something that should be tolerated.”

Wiseman drew a distinction, however, between the problems voters had and the problems even some Democrats have conceded stem from a low turnout for a slate of candidates that failed to excite enough of the Democratic base.

“Let’s address the (voting) problem for what it was. Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Wiseman said. “But let’s not say the sky is falling because we all know it is not. … At the end of the day, people voted.”

Turner countered the notion that the problem was in the quality of the Democratic ticket.

“We had some good candidates. I don’t care what they say,” Turner said. “They didn’t make it this time, but it ain’t over.”

Rev. LaSimba Gray told those at the meeting, “We are going to court.” He solicited donations for the legal effort as well as affidavits that were notarized at the meeting.

Turner has qualified the move toward court saying it will depend on what an examination of the voting machines shows and the quality of the affidavits. Only a handful of people at the meeting raised their hands when asked if they themselves had been told they had already voted early when they hadn’t. Several others said they knew of others who had left but weren’t sure if they had returned to vote later.

Wiseman has some experience with election challenges. His law firm represented Scott Ferguson, the mayor of Oakland, who successfully challenged an earlier race for mayor that Ferguson lost by less than 20 votes. A special election was ordered as a result and Ferguson won the election.

“Let me tell you, the standard for prevailing on something like that is astronomically difficult to overcome. We were talking about margins of, like, 12 to 15 votes,” he said.

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