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VOL. 133 | NO. 136 | Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Early-Voting Challenge Touches On Other Issues of Open Government

By Bill Dries

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The local Democratic Party’s political and legal challenge of early-voting sites and hours is also part of a larger challenge of how decisions are made in city and county government.

In one of the two Chancery Court lawsuits over early voting filed Friday, July 6, former city council member Myron Lowery and Shelby County Democratic Party chairman Corey Strong claim the election commission violated the state’s open-meetings law by meeting in secret to plan the addition of more sites for the July early-voting period.

Corey Strong

The Chancery Court action seeks to bar anyone on the election commission or working with it “from discussing, deliberating toward a decision, or reaching any decision during private meetings, meetings held in secret or meetings held without adequate public notice, or otherwise conducting meetings in violation of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act.”

Strong later described it as “where they go in a room and they come out with the decision already made.

“We’ve felt that way going to the city council and other places. We felt like they’ve already kind of decided,” he said. “When that happens … and it involves public policy, they need to prove that there was an opportunity for the public to get involved in a decision that affects them. If they didn’t, they need to cure that.”

The county general elections on the ballot in the early voting period and the Aug. 2 election day could elect three Memphis City Council members to county offices – Edmund Ford Jr., Janis Fullilove and Bill Morrison, who are running as the Democratic nominees for county commission District 9, Juvenile Court clerk and Probate Court clerk respectively.

The council is considering whether those vacancies could go to voters in special elections on the Nov. 6 ballot or whether the council would appoint interim council members to serve until the October 2019 city elections.

The August ballot includes a special election for a Super District 9 council seat that Ford Canale was appointed to in May after Philip Spinosa resigned to take a job with the Greater Memphis Chamber. Canale is among the candidates seeking the seat for the remainder of its term.

Some of the decision on the three other council seats depends on when a council member elected to a county office decides to resign. There could be up to a three-month period of overlap in which they could hold both offices which would make special elections on the November ballot much less likely if it isn’t barred completely.

Ford has indicated he might not resign immediately if he wins a commission seat in order to pursue some proposals that cross the boundaries of city and county government.

Former county commissioner Steve Mulroy formally requested a copy of city council attorney Allan Wade’s legal opinion. The city’s public records office last week denied the request, citing “attorney-client privileged.”

The Shelby County Commission claimed in May that billing records of its legislative policy adviser Julian Bolton also were protected from public view by attorney-client privilege.

“This decision has mobilized people in a way you haven’t seen in a long time,” Strong said of the early-voting controversy. “When they feel like something is being taken from them, they are more likely to come out and vote.”

Early voting in the county general and state and federal primary elections begins Friday at 27 locations over the 14-day voting period that runs through July 28.

Only three of those locations will be open for the first four days of the voting period, which is the central issue in the other Chancery Court lawsuit filed by the Memphis branch NAACP. That lawsuit claims limiting the early vote to those sites for the first four days is an attempt to suppress the Democratic vote in Shelby County.

“It is clear that there is a potential for disenfranchisement by not opening all voting sites early,” Memphis branch NAACP president Deidre Malone said in a written statement. “Our lawsuit will hopefully remedy that concern and balance the opportunity for all Shelby Countians, regardless of race, socioeconomic status or political party, to make it to the polls without necessary barriers.”

The election commission also added five new sites to the early-voting slate from the normal 21 sites used in May and earlier election cycles. Democrats claim three of those new sites are in predominantly Republican areas.

If the courts agree with the plaintiffs’ claim of voter suppression, the lawsuits ask that the courts order the election commission to come up with a new early voting schedule by the time early voting opens.

Strong said he favors using the same 21 early-voting sites from May and earlier elections, all opening on Friday for the full 14-day run of early voting as was the case in early voting in the May county primaries.

The three sites that open July 13 are Abundant Grace Fellowship Church in Whitehaven, New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Germantown and Election Commission offices at 980 Nixon Dr. in Shelby Farms.

The election commission voted to makes those the three lead early-voting sites after Democratic leaders claimed the previous schedule of opening only Agricenter International for the first four days was unacceptable.

Democratic election commissioners picked Abundant Grace, which is in a predominantly Democratic area. Republican election commissioners picked New Bethel, which is in a predominantly Republican area. The election commission site is required by state law.

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