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VOL. 127 | NO. 193 | Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Audit Details Election Commission Faults

By Bill Dries

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The Tennessee Comptroller’s audit division has concluded the Shelby County Election Commission has “demonstrated an inability to conduct elections without significant inaccuracies, including those identified in the 2012 elections.”

But the audit review requested by Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett also concludes there was “no discernable evidence of intentional misconduct or other actions intended to affect or influence the election process or election outcomes in Shelby County.”

The report – which goes to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Hargett and state legislators, who will recommend election commissioners for counties across the state to the Tennessee Election Commission in April – examined election problems in Shelby County prior to 2012.

But the report focused its findings on the run-up to the Aug. 2 election. It specifically examined the election commission staff’s update of voter information to include, which districts the voters lived in as a result of the once-a-decade redistricting process. Redistricting reflects changes and shifts in population as measured in the U.S. Census.

The report shows the local election commission was never on a detailed schedule worked out in advance and that elections administrator Richard Holden wasn’t preparing backup plans as Shelby County Commissioners delayed approval of their new district lines.

Hargett moved for the audit review after numerous complaints in Shelby County of voters getting the wrong district races on their ballots. The complaints began during the early voting period in July. Some suburban voters in precincts that included some citizens within as well as outside the boundaries of towns and cities complained that they didn’t get ballots with the referendums on forming municipal school districts.

Two lawsuits contesting election results are pending in Chancery Court. Holden is on six months probation with his future to be weighed by the election commission based on the state report and whether there are any further problems in the Nov. 6 elections. The state report is the second in two years on election problems in Shelby County.

The report, released Tuesday, Oct. 10, by Rene Brison, assistant director of the Investigations Division of the audit department, is a stark contrast to the response to state inquiries from Holden.

Holden acknowledged problems with getting the voter database updated to reflect the new district lines.

“We were involved in a dynamic situation that to my knowledge has never occurred in the history of Tennessee,” Holden wrote in a five-page reply in August to state investigators.

Brison wrote that redistricting “was a major portion of daily operations” at the election commission and that Holden had a detailed 50-step project management plan for redistricting that included due dates for specific tasks.

Nevertheless, the office ran behind in the tasks and stopped work as Shelby County Commissioners deadlocked in their move to approve a new set of district lines. The Tennessee Legislature had already approved new district lines for itself and the state’s nine congressional districts by February.

By June, about a month before early voting in advance of the Aug. 2 election day began, Shelby County was the only county in Tennessee in which the local legislative body had not completed its redrawing of district lines. But by then Holden had stopped the redistricting work, placing voters in new districts presumably to wait on the County Commission.

Tennessee elections coordinator Mark Goins told Holden it was “imperative” to resume the work, including work on backup or alternate redistricting plans. And by June 13, the election commission had to order Holden to resume work. That was five days before ballots from Shelby County were mailed to military personnel serving out of the county.

The report also questions the consolidation of some smaller precincts into larger precincts. Holden acknowledged “some were not essential to preparing for the election and added additional work and unnecessary delay to a process that was already critically behind schedule,” Brison wrote.

Holden also claimed state election officials lost precinct data his office had submitted earlier. But Brison said those state officials told her they couldn’t use the data after the U.S. Census Bureau rejected it because the precinct lines improperly split population blocks.

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