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VOL. 127 | NO. 147 | Monday, July 30, 2012

Hargett: Shelby Election Problems Erode Public Confidence

By Bill Dries

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The election driven by ballot questions and one-time-only races looks to become an election that goes into overtime as well.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett formally asked State Comptroller Justin Wilson Friday, July 27, to audit the administration of the Shelby County Election Commission and investigate election procedures and returns.

State Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris of Collierville and Tennessee Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester of Nashville called separately Thursday for a state review of election results in Shelby County.

Each call was much different in tone than the other.

Norris, at a municipal school district rally in Arlington, Thursday, said he had asked Hargett earlier that day to review election results as well as problems on several fronts voters had during the early voting period. That is what triggered Hargett's letter to Wilson requesting the probe.

Memphis voters complained and the Shelby County Election Commission confirmed that some got ballots with the wrong state House district and congressional races on them. The commission was still reviewing the voter database at week’s end. But Shelby County Commission candidate Steve Ross, who paired that database with a state map of the new districts drawn statewide and approved by the Tennessee Legislature in February, estimated just more than 1,000 voters got the wrong ballot.

Before that some early voters looking for the suburban referendums on their ballots didn’t see them because election officials failed to make a distinction between voters in the same precinct who live within the boundaries of one of the suburban towns and cities with the referendums and those don’t live within those boundaries.

“This is not a witch hunt. This is not finger pointing,” Norris said. “We need to know the process works.”

Hargett's comments in his letter to Wilson, which was also signed by Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins, were much more pointed.

"These recent issues are just the latest in a series of errors in the Shelby County Election Commission stretching back at least a decade," he wrote. "Nearly every election cycle in the county in recent memory has been plagued by a myriad of errors and complaints of wrongdoing."

Hargett is a former state Representative from Bartlett.

He said the election problems from past years "indicate a troubling pattern of errors that cannot go unnoticed" and have "eroded public confidence in the Shelby County Election Commission to the point where every action taken by them is considered suspect."

Norris told a group of 400 people in Arlington to rally for the cause of municipal school districts that if they are concerned about their votes counting because of the problems, they should know the state will review procedures.

“If you have reservations or doubts about the sanctity or validity of your ballots, as recently as (Thursday) we’ve been working with the secretary of state of Tennessee, to make sure the comptroller’s office does the review necessary to give you the confidence that you will have an appropriate ballot and that your vote will be counted,” Norris said.

Forrester urged the same state officials to not only review balloting in Shelby County but across the state.

Forrester called for the review because Republican political leaders “have failed over and over again to protect our voting rights.”

“Their far-reaching incompetence and mismanagement has completely undermined our elections and any shred of faith voters may have had left in the process,” he added in a written statement.

He cited early voting problems in Shelby County as well as concerns about the photo voter identification law that took effect in January and new districts in state legislative and congressional races.

Forrester was also critical of Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins for not publicly addressing the specific problem of voters not getting ballots with the right district races in Shelby County.

“Taxpayers funding these elections deserve to know whether their vote counted or it was stolen because of incompetence,” he added. “How big is this problem? When will it be fixed?”

A review by Hargett’s office would be the second by a state agency of Shelby County election procedures in three years.

An error at the commission in 2010 led to the wrong list of voters being loaded into electronic poll books.

The result was possibly thousands of voters being turned away during that year’s August balloting because the poll books showed some of those voters had already voted early. The confirmed cases of those who were affected included Republicans and Democrats across the county including then-District Attorney General Bill Gibbons.

Citing an independent investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Gibbons later concluded the error was an “honest mistake” but he added there was “a lack of training” in procedures by the Election Commission.

And he noted the problem could have been avoided if election officials had reviewed an audit report, taking about 15 minutes for a step that would have easily pointed to a difference in the number of early voters already recorded for the election under way.

Several of the candidates on the Democratic slate of countywide candidates, who got swept by Republican candidates in the 2010 election, reached a different conclusion and filed a Shelby County Chancery Court lawsuit contesting the election. The suit was later dismissed.

PROPERTY SALES 28 290 16,197
MORTGAGES 33 165 10,087
BUILDING PERMITS 184 608 38,544
BANKRUPTCIES 33 125 7,597