New Elections Administrator Dives Into August Election Mechanics

By Bill Dries

The new Shelby County Elections administrator wanted to get an idea about what voter turnout will be like for her first election at the helm.

She wanted to specifically look at active voter percentages by precinct – those who have voted in recent elections as opposed to inactive voters still on the rolls – and get an idea about the early voting turnout by precinct.

Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips has been on the job for about a month. The task at hand is preparing for the Aug. 4 elections, with early voting to open in about a month. Beyond that is the November presidential general election ballot.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

But Linda Phillips couldn’t find the information in an online database. She moved to Memphis a month ago to take the election commission post.

So she took what voter turnout data was available at the election commission and hit the road.

“It’s not the most scientific approach, but I was driving around looking at yard signs,” Phillips said. “I had no idea where I was. I’m just jotting down names and going back to the office and matching it to districts. But it was the best thing I could do with the time I had.”

Incorporating the yard signs into a statistical mix, Phillips worked up charts that she brought to Shelby County Election Commissioners last week to make her case against using a ratio of one election machine for every 500 election-day voters the commissioners were considering.

“The problem with that is, it doesn’t solve the problem,” Phillips began.

Complaints about there not being enough voting machines at some election-day precincts clouded the March presidential primary elections in Shelby County and quickly became a priority even before Phillips was hired.

Phillips was hired by the five-member election commission in April at an annual salary of $108,000.

She started in mid-May and comes to Memphis from Tippecanoe County, Indiana, where she was the elected county clerk, a job that included being the coordinator of elections.

She served two terms as the clerk, then ran for and was elected Tippecanoe County Assessor before losing a re-election bid for that office in 2014.

Phillips describes herself as a “technical geek” who, with an election less than 45 days away, wants to have just enough voting machines at each precinct so voters wait no more than a minute or two even at peak voting times.

“I looked at the raw number of people who voted on election day and added a large fudge factor, particularly in those areas where I thought there would be more interest in the race on the primary circuit,” she said. “And I came up with what I think is a better allocation than a flat standard.”

The election commission approved a floating standard of sorts that depends on the precinct based on Phillips’ estimate of a turnout of 90,000 voters on Aug. 4.

“I think that’s terribly generous,” she told the election commission. “I have planned for 20,000 more voters than the highest number of a similar election.”

Phillips used the same August election cycles in 2012, 2008 and 2004.

The August 2016 ballot is a bit different, with no statewide primaries for governor or U.S. Senate topping the ballot, an occurrence that comes up once every 12 years in the rotation.

Phillips inherits an election system that has faced serious challenges and several investigations in recent years. Among her tasks will be rebuilding the election commission’s relationship with Shelby County government, which has denied recent requests for additional funding by the election commission.

Election commissioner Steve Stamson questioned Phillips closely on how many voting machines would be in the warehouse on election day, and commissioners wanted unassigned machines ready to deploy rapidly if the turnout balloons.

“I just want to make sure,” Stamson said. “We can’t have half the warehouse full. I’ll let you do it your way, but I won’t waste taxpayers’ money.”

Phillips said focusing on the time it takes a voter to vote goes to that point. A more efficient system means poll workers don’t sit idle for long periods of time and they are more likely to want to be poll workers in future elections.

“Tennessee law allows a maximum of five minutes in front of a voting machine. But that’s not the only factor,” she said. “You’ve got to get there. The voter has to get out and that takes time. And voters don’t space themselves out evenly throughout the day. I built in some fudge factor for that. And so at peak times they might wait for a few minutes but they won’t wait for hours.”

The most popular election cycle in terms of voter turnout in Shelby County – the November presidential general election – follows closely after the August elections.

It’s the only election cycle in Shelby County that consistently draws more than half of the county’s voters.

So that will be Phillips next priority and then she will start to look at election data and how it is made public.

“It is not as important to me as getting good elections done. It’s further down on my priority list,” she said. “I would like to make more data available. I’m working with the attorneys to determine how much access the voter list can have.”

Issues with the voter list include making sure those who get the information use it only for political purposes. Under state law, those who get the data must sign an affidavit saying they will use the information for no other purposes.