VOL. 131 | NO. 238 | Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Shelby County Election Commission Weighs New Voting Machines for 2022
By Bill Dries
The Shelby County Election Commission certified the Nov. 8 election results Monday, Nov. 28, at a session that included a call by local Elections Administrator Linda Phillips to seek $12 million in funding to buy a new voting system for the 2022 elections.
Election commissioners Steve Stamson, left, Dee Nollner and Robert Meyers sign election certificates Monday, Nov. 28, after the commission certified the Nov. 8 election results for the county.
(Daily News/Bill Dries)
The commission meets Dec. 13 to approve its budget request to county government.
It is one item on the election commission’s lengthy to-do list. Also on that list are addressing these problems:
• The deadline to register to vote in Shelby County precedes the deadline to change your address on your voter registration form. Attempting to change your address on Election Day is an involved two-step process that could mean you need to show up at your former precinct to vote.
• The date for the Shelby County Election Commission to mail absentee ballots to voters comes so late that some absentee voters didn’t get ballots in time to vote in the November presidential election.
• There is only one election system company certified by the state of Tennessee to provide new voting machines and the machines need to be ordered before the company is swamped by a request from the state of Georgia, which is currently the largest user of GEMS touch-screen voting machines – the machines used in Shelby County elections.
• Computer cards used in elections are old and unpredictable; temperamental decks for sorting absentee ballots and affidavits pushed the Nov. 8 vote count locally into Nov. 9; and ports can’t be used to perform two tasks at the same time.
The new machines would use touch-screen technology similar to the GEMS machines currently used, but also provide a printed copy of a voter’s choices for the voter to verify.
“They don’t permit voters to overload and they warn voters when they’ve under-voted,” Phillips said. “That machine prints a ballot and the voter verifies that paper ballot is exactly as they wanted it counted and then it is run through a single machine. Kind of like an optical scanner but not exactly – at each precinct. You have the combination of reducing voter error, but you have a verifiable paper trail.”
The election commission has $2 million in federal funding toward the purchase.
Phillips said if approved, the timeline would start with requests for proposals from vendors in the fourth quarter of 2020. She also said she would not want to begin using the machines during a presidential general election because of the change in technology for voters as well as election poll workers.
“The county needs time to adjust to the $12 million it is going to take. They need to plan for that. We couldn’t get it done for 2018 even if a magic pile of money appeared tomorrow,” Phillips said, adding that attempting to debut the new system in the 2019 city elections “strikes me as a way to have an epically disastrous election.”
“There’s a staggering number of people out there that don’t think about elections on a daily basis and they are going to need a lot of help to understand,” Phillips said. “We certainly can’t introduce it in our next presidential election … so that leaves 2021.”
Past election problems in recent years have made local capital funding a hard sell to make to county commissioners.
“For six years there has been a concern about the voting machines,” said election commissioner Norma Lester, who cited 4-year-old plans to update voter registration on a separate system in addition to plans for new voting machines.
“I think that’s a disservice and nothing personally against you,” Lester told Phillips who took the administrator job earlier this year just before the August elections. “I think that’s disingenuous and a disservice to the voters that it’s taking us this long to get anything. And we are talking about another six years before we can even get new machines?”
The certified and audited count for the Nov. 8 county election ballot confirmed a 60.2 percent voter turnout in Shelby County. It did not change the outcome of any of the 53 races and referendums.
Phillips said instances in which voters were on the rolls in two precincts because they changed their address after the October deadline for voter registration were reconciled. But the names of three voters who appear to have voted twice were turned over to the Shelby County District Attorney’s office for investigation.
The absentee vote count that delayed election night results in Shelby County for a third consecutive presidential general election was caused by a high volume of absentee ballots not seen in other election cycles.
Phillips said a problem with scanners and decks that loaded the ballots for scanning amounted to a physical connection that came lose sporadically during the attempt to reconcile the affidavits with the number of ballots.
Two new scanners to replace the older scanners, which were a problem for different reasons in the two previous presidential elections, would cost $80,000. But Phillips said she’s undecided on whether to push for that expense.