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VOL. 127 | NO. 207 | Tuesday, October 23, 2012

‘Behind the Headlines’ Explores Fixes for County’s Election Woes

By Bill Dries

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Some early voters in Shelby County are snapping pictures of their completed ballots with their phones to verify their votes. Other voters are delaying their trip to the polls because they anticipate problems in the opening days of the voting period that ends Nov. 1.

Those are the stories those working to repair Shelby County’s election machinery as well as confidence in that machinery are hearing as early voting continues in advance of the Nov. 6 Election Day.

“We’ve had problems on this election commission and with elections in Shelby County for years, with Democratic administrations and with Republican,” said Democratic Election Commissioner Norma Lester. “But at some time, it has to stop.”

Lester, along with Election Commission attorney John Ryder and attorney Lang Wiseman, commented on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”

The weekly program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen in its entirety at The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com.

Through Saturday, the fourth day of early voting, 53,665 people had voted early in Shelby County in the election topped by the presidential general election.

Ryder and Lester blamed most but not all of the problems in the August elections on the once-a-decade redistricting process. The redrawing of district lines for the Shelby County Commission was delayed by the commission and missed the end of 2011 deadline in state law by six months.

“Our legislature causes a lot of our problems. … The time frames are not in sync always with the elections,” Lester said. “It was our responsibility. However, it was influenced in some part by thinking that the County Commission was going to go ahead and redistrict. That was a natural assumption. But after a period of time when that did not occur we should have moved forward.”

One of two challenges of results from the Aug. 2 elections is still pending in Shelby County Chancery Court. The Shelby County Election Commission numbers that became part of the court case this month show 837 disputed votes in the District 4 countywide school board between Kenneth Whalum Jr. and Kevin Woods. Woods won in the certified results by 108 votes.

The other court challenge from the August elections resulted in Chancellor Arnold Goldin ordering the certified results of the Millington referendum on a sales tax increase overturned to show the ballot proposal was approved by voters there. The election commission agreed with the move to overturn the results proposed by Wiseman, representing the city of Millington in the challenge.

“Let’s not pretend that it’s just here lately that there are problems in elections. Problems occur all the time,” he said. “The only time you find those problems, though, is when you go looking for them. And in elections where the margin is very wide, which historically most elections are – you don’t go looking for them. So therefore you don’t find anything.”

Wiseman said he is sympathetic to some degree with the job the Election Commission has. And he agrees with the political adage that no election is ever going to be perfect. There will always be some kind of problem.

“Every election that I’ve looked into you find issues and you find problems,” he said. “What you have to guard against is that while you have to accept that as part of the process, you can’t get too comfortable with it to the extent that election commissions and election workers can’t let their motto be ‘close enough is good enough.’”

In the 2005 state Senate general election won by Democrat Ophelia Ford over Republican Terry Roland by 13 votes, Wiseman represented Roland in the lawsuit that followed that turned up documented instances of people voting in the names of dead citizens and those who listed addresses that are vacant lots.

“In the main there’s not a considerable amount of fraud going on,” Wiseman said of the 2005 case. “However, I’ve also been involved in an election case here in Memphis where we identified dead people voting. There’s no negligence in dead voting. Somebody is out there actively trying to commit fraud when you have dead people voting.”

Ryder said the “geocoding” problems in August that meant more than 1,000 voters got the wrong district races on their ballots should be resolved. There is a new Election Commission contract with the software company it has worked with in the past and University of Memphis experts have also worked on the geocoding.

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