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VOL. 129 | NO. 151 | Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Politicos Parse Early Voting Numbers

By Bill Dries

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There is a category in voter turnout statistics that has long been debated by those running for office and those who work in their campaigns.

More than 82,000 Shelby County voters cast ballots during the early voting period that ended Saturday, Aug. 7.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

It is the closest Shelby County has to an official category for undecided voters or voters up for grabs by either side of the partisan divide.

The category is “other,” and it doesn’t refer to a voter’s party preference. It is one of three racial categories used to divide voters by what they indicate – or don’t indicate – on their voter registration forms.

Statistics from the Shelby County Election Commission the day after early voting ended Saturday, Aug. 2, show 36.5 percent of early voters in advance of the Aug. 7 election day were white, 34.6 percent were black and 28.9 percent were “other.”

The “other” category includes those voters who did not indicate their race, which is not a requirement on voter registration forms.

And 23,835 of the 82,403 early voters did not indicate their race.

With just a few hours left to vote early Saturday, Democratic state Rep. Larry Miller told several dozen Democrats at a rally in Overton Park that “we pretty well know” who is Democrat and who is Republican based on the racial split in voter registration statistics.

“We’ve got to figure out who ‘others’ are,” Miller said. “That can make the difference.”

Democrats are attempting to avenge election results four years ago in which Republicans swept every countywide office on the August 2010 ballot. Republicans are defending those gains with what has been a traditional strategy, emphasizing the incumbent’s record and stability.

Both sides are watching the turnout numbers closely. Four years ago, turnout for early voting and election day totaled about 30 percent of all Shelby County registered voters. Of those, 55 percent voted in the state and federal Democratic primaries, while 43.6 percent voted in the Republican primaries. Yet Democrats lost every countywide position in the general election.

To some, it suggests the 27.7 percent of the voters who in the “other” category – numbering 49,582 – were the difference. To others, it suggests Democratic crossover from the top to the bottom of the 2010 ballot. The lively three-way Republican primary for governor on the August 2010 ballot works against the suggestion that Republicans crossed over to vote in Democratic state and federal primaries four years ago and then returned to party loyalties by the county general elections lower on the ballot.

As soon as early voting expanded this year to 20 satellite locations after two days at the Downtown Election Commission offices only, the percentage of early voters in the Republican state and federal primaries spiked. At one point, there was a difference of less than 2,000 voters.

By the close of early voting, more than 8,000 had chosen to vote in the Democratic primaries.

Fifty-four percent, or 44,501, of the 82,403 early voters in advance of election day this Thursday voted in the Democratic state and federal primaries. That compares to 44.3 percent, or 36,469, who voted in the companion Republican primaries and 1.7 percent, or 1,433, early voters who skipped the primaries and voted in the county general elections only.

The statistics also show 59.3 percent of the early voters were women and 40.7 percent were men.

By age, those 65 and older accounted for 37.9 percent of the early voters, followed by the 28.1 percent ages 55-64, making older voters the majority of early voters.

Because of the length of the touch-screen ballot, with the federal and state primaries coming on its first pages, politicos of both parties will be watching the early voting totals closely for ballot falloff – the races toward the bottom or on later pages that voters skipped.

The races at the very bottom of the ballot are the state appellate court judicial retention election, including the three races for the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee was in Memphis on the last day of early voting as part of the effort by her, Justice Cornelia Clark and Chief Justice Gary Wade to counter a statewide push to reject the return of all three justices.

The Supreme Court retention races are seen as a bellwether for a statewide referendum on the November ballot that would change the method of selecting appellate court judges in Tennessee.

The judges, including those on the state Supreme Court, would continue to be appointed by the governor. But from there the appointment would go to the Tennessee Legislature for approval in a process that mirrors the appointment of federal court judges who are nominated by the president and subject to approval by the U.S. Senate.

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