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VOL. 131 | NO. 209 | Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Early Voting Opens with Raw Election Appeals

By Bill Dries

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U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen’s choice of cap usually has some logo related to the University of Memphis or the Grizzlies and, occasionally, to baseball legend and childhood inspiration Minnie Minoso.

Democratic partisans at a “HillaRally” in South Main used the party’s symbol of a mule as part of a Saturday rally just ahead of early voting in the presidential general election that begins Wednesday, Oct. 19 at 21 locations across Shelby County.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

But when Democrats gathered in South Main last weekend for a “HillaRally” in behalf of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Cohen’s ballcap bore the letter “L.”

“I said, ‘I need to wear the L hat for the liars,” Cohen told a cheering crowd at the Loflin Yard gathering as he talked about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his local supporters. “It’s unbelievable. The man just goes out and tells lie after lie and Charlotte Bergman and Terry Roland think it’s the gospel.”

As early voting opens Wednesday, Oct. 19, at 21 sites across Shelby County, the two campaigns – locally and nationally – seem to have no subtlety left in their appeals.

Early voting in advance of the Nov. 8 election runs through Nov. 5. A list of early voting locations at hours can be found at www.shelbyvote.com, the website of the Shelby County Election Commission.

Roland, a county commissioner and chairman of the Trump campaign in West Tennessee, concedes Clinton will carry Shelby County once the popular votes are counted on Nov. 8.

“But it’s going to be closer than people think,” he said before turning to the “mainstream media” and Clinton supporters like Cohen.

“They are pulling out all the stops,” Roland said. “They are doing everything they can to discredit him. If he wasn’t ahead they wouldn’t be doing that.”

Joanna Lipman, one of the local organizers of the HillaRally, likewise concedes Trump will win the state and claim Tennessee’s 11 votes in the Electoral College.

“This is about the long game,” she said.

Among those with a stake in the long game is Democratic state Rep. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, among a new crop of Democrats in the capital whose brief time in Nashville has been with Republican super majorities in both chambers.

Akbari is seen as a rising star in a red state among Democrats but those stars only rise if Democrats can build their numbers.

“I hope we can help turn Tennessee at least purple,” she told those at the rally.

This is the third presidential election in which Cohen has been the senior Democratic elected official in West Tennessee. An early supporter of Barack Obama in 2008 when Clinton was considered the favorite for the party’s nomination, Cohen has carried the party’s national banner locally as he runs for re-election. This year, Cohen has the easiest re-election bid since he claimed the 9th district seat in the 2006 elections.

Cohen was leading the local Democratic effort even before the forced disbanding of the local Democratic Party by the state party earlier this year.

Local Republicans stick closer to the party structure in presidential elections and disagreements during the primary might flare but aren’t sustained the way Democratic factions in primary season battle.

As local Democrats talk of building support for future down ballot victories in future election years, Roland is talking about different changes for Republicans statewide after the presidential race is decided in less than a month.

“For the ones that didn’t stick with Trump, it’s going to be different for them,” he said. “It’s a good thing Gov. (Bill) Haslam is in his second term. If he was going for his second term, he probably wouldn’t make it. And he probably messed up his chance for ever being senator of this state.”

Haslam backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the primary season and when Trump claimed the nomination, Haslam did not endorse him and said he didn’t see any point in the two meeting.

Earlier this month, Haslam called on Trump to give up the nomination. Haslam said he intends to write in Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, for President when he votes.

Roland is also familiar with the political long game Lipman referred to.

When Trump stumped at a February rally in Millington, the crowd of 10,000 was the largest crowd Roland has spoken before in his time as an elected official. Roland is already a declared candidate for the Republican nomination for Shelby County Mayor in 2018. He will face Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir in the bid to succeed outgoing County Mayor Mark Luttrell.

Meanwhile, Republicans overseeing the presidential general election in Tennessee responded gingerly Monday when asked about Trump’s allegation that the election will be “rigged” and that his supporters should guard against that at polling places.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve had a charged election,” state election coordinator Mark Goins said in a conference call with reporters across the state.

Goins noted that each county in the state has its own election commission that determines what voting systems are used and each have their own vote count. He also echoed what has become a mantra by Shelby County Elections Coordinator Linda Phillips since she arrived in Memphis this summer to take the local election post.

“None of the voting machines are connected to the Internet,” Goins said. “Most of the calls we’re getting are when does early voting start, where is my polling place. Most of the calls we are getting about this are from the media. I may have had two calls from individuals concerned about fraud in elections.”

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, whose office includes overseeing elections, told reporters that Trump’s concerns are an opportunity for the state to promote a hotline for reports of problems at the polls.

Pressed about the idea of Trump supporters showing up to challenge voters outside polling places, Hargett said: “We take that very seriously regardless of what party we are talking about.

“I keep hearing about this rigged election,” he said. “By and large here in Tennessee, based on what I know, elections have been run in a very open and transparent fashion.”

The only exception Hargett mentioned was a 2005 race for the state Senate in Shelby County in which Roland, the Republican nominee, lost to Democrat Ophelia Ford by 13 votes and an investigation turned up instances in which people still on the voting rolls but who were dead showed up as having voted as well as voters who didn’t live in the district. The Senate overturned the election results but Ford was later elected to a full four-year term.

And some group of Democratic nominees in every set of countywide general elections since 2008 has gone to Chancery Court to contest the results of the local elections – all of those challenges unsuccessful to date.

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