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VOL. 133 | NO. 153 | Friday, August 3, 2018

Last Word: Lee's Win, Harris' Way and Turnout Questions

By Bill Dries

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What to choose from now that the Aug. 2 election is tentatively in the books? First this is going to be an all-election Last Word because the sugar buzz from a bag that was full of jelly beans is starting to wane and I don’t want to be here when the sun rises in just a bit. Kind of a vampire thing, isn’t it?

Let’s not get ahead of the numbers. Here are the results, first and foremost.

Bill Lee’s victory in the statewide Republican primary for Tennessee Gov. is drawing national attention for a number of reasons. This was Lee’s first race for elected office and he picked a statewide race in which he would firmly and authentically claim the mantle of political outsider. And he peaked as Republican voters soured on campaigns by Randy Boyd and Diane Black that went too far in attack ads that questioned the conservative credentials and allegiance to President Donald Trump of each other and Lee when he began showing up ahead of them in their own polling.

Lee isn’t totally new to politics. He’s been a campaign contributor which is not unusual for a business leader. But when Lee crossed the road from contributor to candidate, he brought with him a natural ability to connect with voters in a very quick evolution. Lee started this with a trip to the 2017 Republican Lincoln Day Dinner here in Memphis but he had been to the same event a year earlier to get a look around and see if he wanted to do this.

You can be the most knowledgeable candidate on issues but voters still want to know who you are. And Lee didn’t flinch in telling the story of the sudden death of his first wife and his child as well as the story of his religious faith as a result. He told it directly in a way that connected even with voters who may be wary of candidates who lead with religion. Lee didn’t always lead with that. When he came to Moore Tech for a look around earlier this year, he lead with his master plumber’s license as he talked with students there, telling them he runs a mechanical contractor business in Nashville that has a workforce of 1,200 people doing the same thing they are training to do for a living. And oh by the way, he would then add that he was running for governor.

In Shelby County all of this translated a bit differently. Lee claimed the nomination statewide. But Black carried Shelby County with Lee a very close second -- 45 votes -- and Boyd third, suggesting he was probably hurt more by the attack ad fatigue than Black.


Locally, Democrats are back in just about the most impressive way possible in the county elections. Lee Harris winning the race for county mayor over David Lenoir who for at least the last four years had been working toward this race. Democratic nominees took every single countywide office on the ballot and even picked up another seat on the county commission to take office in September with an eight-vote majority on the 13-member body.

Look for big changes in the county building with Lee’s election. The candidate who promised to disrupt the “status quo” has the votes on the commission to back that up. And there will probably be a different relationship with City Hall on several levels.

The most obvious is county funding for the Memphis Area Transit Authority although you shouldn’t take lightly Harris’s campaign line about being frugal. That is no joke. He is going to want to know specifically what the county funding would be used for and is there a less expansive way to do it.

Look for him to question the current joint city-county economic development strategy. As a city council member, Harris voted for city funding of Crosstown Concourse. But he has been a vocal opponent of other similar funding that he considers to be “corporate welfare.”

And Harris believes Justice Department oversite of Juvenile Court should continue and so does an eight-vote majority on the county commission.

Now can we please figure out how most of the other 94 counties in this state – I mean the vast majority – manage to start posting some election returns within an hour after the polls close.

This was a fast moving election on the state level with Lee’s decisive win in the Republican primary for Governor right out of the box followed by concessions from Black and Boyd – all of that before the first vote in anything was posted here.

Before the vote counting began Thursday, the election commission tried to anticipate some of the reaction to election totals usually posted starting around 8:30 p.m. – an hour and a half after the polls close. In this case it was after 9 p.m.

The explanation: state law says there can be no tabulation of any early voting results until the last voter at each of the 166 polling places has finished. The polling places are not connected electronically, so an officer at each of the 166 locations has to phone in to say balloting has been completed there. Meanwhile absentee ballots are being counted throughout the day.

I think some of the other election commissions may be breaking the law or they have some kind of warp drive technology, because the Secretary of State’s website had vote totals from other counties starting within three or four minutes of the 7 p.m. closing time across the state.

When the Election Commission was on its way to court a few weeks ago over its choice of early voting sites and their hours, some county commissioners – Republicans and Democrats – said they would provide whatever extra funding was needed for added hours for the early voting sites. Is that money still available to get the technology to speed up the vote count and thereby abolish the long election night that much of the rest of the state seems to have left behind?

One more note: the turnout, based on the total number of voters in the race for county mayor was 27.3 percent compared to 27 percent four years ago and almost 30 percent in 2010. So did we grow some here or did we just move the vote around a bit with more of it coming during early voting than on election day?

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