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VOL. 131 | NO. 168 | Tuesday, August 23, 2016

New Voting Machines on Shelby County's Political Horizon

By Bill Dries

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The end is near for the touch-screen voting machines Shelby County voters have been using for 18 years.

This November could be the last presidential general election for the Diebold machines.

ROBERT MEYERS

“People like the current machines. They’re reasonably easy. They are straightforward in their presentation,” Shelby County Election Commission chairman Robert Meyers said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “But the fact of the matter is we’ve had those machines for a long time. And irrespective of these other issues, by about 2020 or so we going to be in a position where our vendors will no longer support them and we are going to have to do something different.”

The touch screen voting machines made their debut in 1998 in early voting before they spread to election day balloting in Shelby County.

They replaced Shouptronic electronic voting machines in use starting in the mid-1980s and lever machines that were used for several decades before that.

New voting machines of some sort are probably a $5 million buy depending on what kind of technology is chosen.

LINDA PHILLIPS

Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips said depending on the type of technology new voting machines could cost between $3,000 and $8,000 each.

The election commission has $2.5 million in federal funding awarded to the state that is set aside just for Shelby County, with the rest of the funding coming from Shelby County government.

NORMA LESTER

“I’m hoping we will be able to come to a position where we can get more machines,” said election commission secretary Norma Lester. “They are old and technology changes.”

The election commission has made no request, but Phillips is not a fan of paper ballots on which votes would be counted through an optical scanner.

“If you are going to commit election fraud, paper ballots are the way to go,” she said. “Paper ballots, optical scan ballots, are generally not very compatible with early voting. Early voting, you have to have every single ballot style at every single polling place. Ballot control can be a real nightmare.”

While election day voters are limited to voting at their predesignated polling place, early voting locations are open to citizens from every precinct – meaning numerous combinations of a ballot with district races for any particular voter are loaded onto the touch-screen machines.

With the touch-screen machines, voters are shown all of their selections and asked to confirm they would like to cast their ballot. However, the current machinery doesn’t generate paper receipts, which has drawn criticism from those who believe voters should get a hard copy of their selections. Some voters in recent local elections have resorted to Instragram posts and iPhone pictures of the screen of their voting machine.

“My hope is that in the interim … we can find machines that create a more palatable voter-verified audit trail without having to go back necessarily to paper ballots,” Meyers said. “I think ultimately that is a step backwards in the long run. I think voters would be extremely unhappy if that were the process here in Shelby County.”

The Aug. 4 elections in Shelby County were the first in the administrator’s position for Phillips, who came to Memphis from a similar position overseeing elections in Lafayette, Indiana, and has been an elections consultant.

“The basics are there,” she said of how the August election was conducted. “But I think there is some tweaking that needs to be done. … and to help people understand that their votes are secure and they are counted exactly the way they cast them.”

Phillips was hired by the five-member Shelby County Election Commission after a series of controversies, investigations and lawsuits over election results under the watch of previous elections administrator Richard Holden.

The investigations and lawsuits starting in 2011 found no evidence of deliberate manipulation or fraud. They instead concluded there were mistakes such as the election commission staff not having new district lines ready, causing voters in some cases to have the wrong district races on their ballots.

Lester said a precinct that is split among several different districts is already a problem, even when voters get the correct ballots.

“We have so many splits,” she said. “You and I can live on the same street and I go in and I get one ballot. But you go in and you are going to get another one and you are right next to me. They don’t understand how those boundaries are drawn.”

Meyers said he has had his own frustrations in recent years with the problems. But he said the complaints about getting the right ballot also point to the need for more outreach by the election commission about what can be a complex process.

“They got the right ballot,” he said of most of the complaints. “They weren’t allowed to vote for who they expected to be able to because their expectation was incorrect.”

The Nov. 8 ballot featuring the presidential general election is the election cycle that regularly draws the largest turnout in Shelby County. It is the only election cycle that consistently continues to draw more than half of the county’s voters to the polls.

And unlike the 14 percent turnout in the Aug. 4 elections that was a quick ballot for voters to get through, Phillips said there will be some lines and waiting for voters on election day in November and the last two weeks of October when early voting begins.

“I would really strongly recommend that everybody vote early,” she said. “There will be some lines on election day. With the sheer volume of voters that are coming out, there will be some waits.

“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

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