VOL. 128 | NO. 37 | Friday, February 22, 2013
Election Commission Still at Odds Over Errors
By Bill Dries
At one point during the Wednesday, Feb. 20, meeting of the Shelby County Election Commission, chairman Robert Meyers interrupted a detailed and lengthy lecture by election commissioner George Monger by saying, “I object to the leading question.”
It drew the only laughs during the three-hour session that marked the end of election administrator Richard Holden’s probationary period.
Monger made public records requests to assemble a chain of emails between Holden and his staff as they tracked down the source of problems in the November elections.
The particular problem Monger tracked involved voters in one split city-county precinct being given the wrong ballots because their addresses were listed incorrectly as in the county outside Memphis when they were in the city of Memphis.
Monger’s specific point was that Holden instructed the staff to delete a report in its summary to election commissioners.
The details in the report on the address problems in the Ross-01 precinct were part of the basis for a letter Wednesday to the election commission from City Attorney Herman Morris.
“The breadth of this error is still unknown to us,” Morris wrote. “What we do know is that it is unacceptable and we still await a full explanation and report on the number of incorrect ballots in the city’s November election.”
Morris also complained that after Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration specifically complained about the problems on the Nov. 6 Election Day, “our staff had to appear at a public meeting and specifically ask for information to obtain any.”
Monger contended the election commission got an edited or shortened report that deflected blame for the problems, which he called “unacceptable.” He also questioned election commission staff about whether they were instructed to leave anything out of the report to the commission.
When Information Technology director Dennis Boyce was asked the question directly by election commissioner Dee Nollner, he said he no one told him to leave anything out.
“How do you expect him to answer that question,” Monger said. “If you think that he’s going to sit here and say, ‘Yes, I’ve been told not to tell the election commission something’ – that is ludicrous.”
“You’re essentially just saying that Mr. Boyce lied about that,” Meyers said.
“I absolutely am saying it,” Monger replied.
Holden was suspended for three days and put on probation by the election commission for six months after problems in the August 2012 elections that included voters not getting ballots with the correct district races after the once-a-decade redistricting process for local and state legislative bodies as well as Congress. The probationary period runs out at the end of February.
Monger moved Wednesday to ask for Holden’s resignation, the second time such a motion has been made since August. He and fellow Democratic election commissioner Norma Lester, who made the motion in August, said the problems have not been remedied and public confidence in the election process in Shelby County has been damaged.
“They don’t have confidence in us,” Lester said. “We owe the community some evidence that things are going to change … and that we can have successful elections.”
Monger and Lester said they realized the vote on Holden by the five-member body would probably break along party lines. It did with the three Republican commissioners voting down the action.
“I do believe that people are trying their best,” Meyers said. “I do think that we are making progress although I think we have a long way to go. But I haven’t lost faith.”
“Shelby County’s the largest county (in the state) and we have the biggest problems,” Nollner said.
Election commissioner Steve Stamson agreed with Meyers.
“He’s done what we asked him to do,” he said of Holden.
Holden said he and his staff are working through problems and have undergone more training since the August elections because of the problems.
One of the conditions on Holden’s probation was that the November 2012 elections be conducted with no major problems at the polls.
Morris, in his letter, said there were significant problems in November.
“The city considers the SCEC’s lack of attention to precious votes to be unacceptable and it has not improved over the course of time,” he wrote. “To the contrary, the continuing lack of diligence to running an accurate election is extremely disconcerting in the face of recent election issues and we note that the recent audit findings by the Secretary of State concur with our observations.”
Morris is referring to an October report from the office of the Tennessee Comptroller requested by Secretary of State Tre Hargett after the August elections. The report concluded the problems weren’t intentional misconduct but “demonstrated an inability to conduct elections without significant inaccuracies, including those identified in the 2012 elections.”