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VOL. 129 | NO. 85 | Thursday, May 1, 2014

Early Voting Enters Final Day

By Bill Dries

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The last day of early voting Thursday, May 1, in advance of the May 6 Shelby County primaries finds Democratic partisans questioning each other and faulting election procedures. Meanwhile, Republican partisans have been relatively quiet.

Early voting in advance of the May 6 election day for Shelby County primaries ends Thursday at 21 locations across Shelby County.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

The contrast reflects the early voter turnout so far in the Republican and Democratic primaries.

Through Tuesday, April 29, 69.3 percent of early voters cast their ballots in the Democratic primary, with the remaining 30.7 percent voting in the Republican primary. The May ballot doesn’t include any general election contests.

During early voting for the same election cycle four years ago, 59 percent of early voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary and 41 percent in the Republican primary.

The difference reflects the outcome of the 2010 elections, during which Republicans swept every countywide race in the general election. Many of those incumbents aren’t facing opposition in their primaries this year.

Republicans have three hard-fought primaries for seats on the newly restructured Shelby County Commission and a one-on-one primary contest to choose their nominee for Shelby County assessor.

Through Tuesday, 13,079 people – 2.5 percent of the county’s 533,720 registered voters – had voted early.

In 2010, early voting turnout was more than twice that: 31,029 residents, 5.2 percent of the county’s nearly 600,000 registered voters at the time.

Meanwhile, after a debate earlier in the primary campaign season about party loyalty among Democrats, party leaders are now debating the arrival of several different “Democratic” ballots with endorsements being handed to voters at the early voting sites.

The ballots are an institution in Memphis politics.

But local Democratic Party Chairman Bryan Carson is complaining that some of them are “rogue ballots.”

“These unofficial ballots are not a reliable, valid or sanctioned voting guide,” Carson said. “Voters should avoid using these rogue ballots as a basis for making voting decisions.”

“These unofficial ballots are not a reliable, valid or sanctioned voting guide.”

–Bryan Carson
Chairman, Shelby County Democratic Party

Both local parties have struggled with ballots made to look like official party endorsements in primaries, when neither party takes a formal stand in contested primary races.

But Carson went further, taking on those who put out the sample ballots and charge candidates to be listed.

Carson’s statement called them a “profit-making venture.”

“These individuals are not necessarily concerned with who the best candidates are,” the statement continues, “but which candidates can afford to pay to be on their ballots.”

The city’s political tradition is rich with such ballots, with their organizers defending the practice of charging candidates as necessary to print the ballots and pay campaign workers to distribute them outside voting locations.

The use of paid campaign workers instead of volunteers is another perennial point of debate among local partisans.

Some Democrats faulted nine days of early voting only at the Shelby County Election Commission’s Downtown office for the low turnout, with some more specifically blaming the majority-Republican Election Commission for the longer period of single-site voting than four years ago.

But early voting turnout in the Democratic primary was at 75 percent before the expansion to the satellite voting sites, when the percentage of those voting in the Republican primary began to rise.

Election administrator Rich Holden said when he was a Republican election commissioner and Democrats were the majority on the body, Democrats were adamant about keeping the site at the 157 Poplar Ave. location, even though the Election Commission offices moved a block away and then its headquarters moved to Shelby Farms Park.

The commission will discuss a more central location for the next early voting period in advance of the August elections. Tennessee law no longer requires Election Commission offices be the central early voting site.

Memphis-branch NAACP leaders encouraged a higher voter turnout, and Executive Director Madeleine Taylor also complained Tuesday about the single polling location for most of the early voting period, as well as maps for the new single-member Shelby County Commission districts on the Election Commission website that include no street detail to tell boundaries.

“These may represent small, inconsequential changes. However, they are important when the consequence is to suppress the vote and discourage people from voting,” she said. “First, there was photo voter identification, then unannounced precinct changes, voter machine errors and a lack of diverse representation in the polling places.”

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