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VOL. 133 | NO. 132 | Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Early Voting Becomes Issue, Cause in Run-Up To Aug. 2 Election Day

By Bill Dries

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Since early voting began in Tennessee in July 1994, it hasn’t increased voter turnout in Shelby County – at least not on its own in a sustained way. That still depends on what and who is on the ballot.

Early voting has spread the turnout across a voting period instead of a single election day, made voting more convenient and required multiple get-out-the-vote strategies and ground games by campaigns.

Nevertheless, the new leadership of the Shelby County Democratic Party is pushing to make the early-voting period that begins July 13 in advance of the Aug. 2 Election Day, a point to begin increasing Democratic turnout. But that plan has become entangled with controversy over early-voting locations.

Early voting changes have become a hot political issue in the race leading up to the Aug. 2 election day. (Daily News File)

“The Shelby County Democratic Party is emphatically against this and they will hear from us at the voting booth,” local party chairman Corey Strong said following a Friday, June 29, election commission meeting and decision to scrap the early-voting locations and schedule announced just days earlier.

Democratic leaders and candidates on the August ballot for county and state offices complained that the addition of five sites and using Agricenter International as the lead site and only early-voting site for the first four days of the 14-day period were all an effort to suppress the Democratic vote.

Past party leaders made the same claim in the same election cycle four years ago about opening the Downtown location for several days ahead of the rest of the sites.

The election commission voted Friday to rearrange the early-voting schedule – keeping 25 of the 26 sites, substituting an East Memphis church for another church in the area that is having HVAC problems and adding a 27th early-voting site at the election commission offices in Shelby Farms Park.

The commission also picked two sites to be open for the entire 14-day early-voting period – Abundant Grace Fellowship Church, 1574 E. Shelby Dr., and New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, 7786 Poplar Pike, along with the election commission site at Shelby Farms.

Those three sites replace the Agricenter as what was originally the only early-voting site to be open for the entire voting period.

Abundant Grace was the choice of the election commission’s two Democratic commissioners as a site in a majority Democratic area of the county to be open the entire voting period. New Bethel, in Germantown, was the choice of the election commission’s three Republican commissioners as a site in a majority Republican area of the county.

Meanwhile, officials of White Station Church of Christ notified the Election Commission Thursday that the church is replacing its HVAC system.

The election commission voted to move early voting to nearby Colonial Baptist Church, 1503 Colonial Road.

County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips said adding the early-voting site at the election commission’s Shelby Farms office is in response to a requirement by the state election coordinator’s office that there must be an early voting site at the commission’s office by state law.

Past election officials had said erroneously that state law barred an early-voting site at Election Commission offices. When the commission’s Downtown office was at 150 Washington Ave., early voting was at neighboring 157 Poplar Ave. When the commission moved to 157 Poplar this year, nearby Calvary Episcopal Church became the Downtown early-voting site, starting with the May county primaries because there wasn’t space at 157 Poplar for early voting too.

The Shelby Farms location is a little more than four miles from Agricenter.

The series of changes came at an election commission meeting that drew several dozen people, most calling for the body to open all of the early-voting sites on the first day of the voting period through its July 28 conclusion.

“Clearly, the fix is in. We know what it is,” Strong said after the Friday meeting.

“This idea that you can’t open all of the locations to all of the people – well, with 26 locations you can’t. But with 21 locations you can open all of them,” he said referring to all 21 early-voting sites being open for the entire voting period for the May county primaries.

Democratic election commissioner Norma Lester, who wasn’t present in June when the commission approved the early-voting sites and hours, said she didn’t know if the commission’s intent was to suppress Democratic turnout but that the commission should have waited to change the early-voting site hours and days from the May precedent until the next election year.

“I am a diehard Democrat. But I am not blind and I am not going to assume that because the Democrats outvoted the Republicans in the (May) primaries that means there was an increase,” Lester said. “You will see that (Republican turnout) will increase in the general and it won’t have anything to do with these three extra sites that everybody was upset about. They are going to come out and they are going to vote. And there is nothing that we can do about it except get Democrats to come out and vote. I’m not going to be mad at Republicans because they come out and outvote us.”

Republican turnout is expected to be higher than it was in May because of the four-way hotly contested Republican primary for governor on the August ballot.

Phillips said the decision to open all early-voting sites for the entire early-voting period in the last election was a mistake.

“It was kind of an experiment. Keep in mind, I didn’t set the early-voting sites in 2016. In 2017, we did the legal minimum. So 2018 I went back and looked,” she said. “We were all open in November (2016). But now that I look at the history and a deep dive into the numbers, that was a stupid waste of resources.”

Phillips also said opening all of the sites for the entire 14-day period would be a strain on staff and other resources that wouldn’t yield an increase in voter turnout.

“The problem was it didn’t change the number of people who voted early,” she said. “Over the history of this and I can go back to about 2010 – we would open two days, three days, four days, five days even eight days later. And it didn’t change the number of people.”

The August ballot features county general elections as well as state and federal primary elections and a special race for a seat on the Memphis City Council.

Looking at the same August ballot election cycle every four years, the early and absentee vote count for the August 2014 election was 82,395 with 21 early-voting sites and the Downtown early-voting site being the only one of those sites open in the first two days of the 14-day voting period.

Four years before that, under the same conditions, there were 93,736 early voters. In 2006, with 19 early-voting sites, all open for the entire 14-day voting period the turnout was 77,245.

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