The voting machines aren't broke, but the Herenton political machine sure looks like it is.
The mayor kicked off the New Year and his reelection campaign with the slogan "On the Wall" and a half-baked proposal for a new football stadium. Since then, Herenton paranoia has gone off the wall and demonized Richard Fields and unnamed snakes, Nick Clark, white people, the broadcast media, The Commercial Appeal editorial page, pollsters, prosecutors chasing Joseph Lee, the City Council, Herman Morris, Carol Chumney, and haters.
And now it's voting machines and the Shelby County Election Commission. The evidence was scant — an unspecified number of complaints to Herenton headquarters and to poll workers. But as of Monday, 34,841 people had voted early, and there was no indication of widespread problems.
Not that there are no real problems. Specifically, there are at least three of them. First, Herenton presented his appointee, city attorney Elbert Jefferson, to make the premature claim of machine malfunction. Second, the mayor's campaign headquarters is distributing a handout from the Memphis Democratic Club that uses the city of Memphis seal to make it look official. And third, the mayor has failed to remind city and MLGW employees, including his appointees, that they should not do politics on city time. Herenton could stop all of this with a word, but he fans fears instead.
This is not the behavior of someone who believes he is cruising to a fifth consecutive term. The man Herenton beat by 142 votes in the 1991 mayor's race thinks this will be the closest one since then.
"Forty percent absolutely wins it for anyone, and that could be generous," said former mayor Dick Hackett. "I think 35 percent, give or take 3 percent, could be the turning point. The key is getting out your base."
Forty percent of the vote would be almost seven percentage points less than Herenton got in 1999, when he was challenged by Joe Ford and several lesser candidates. The turnout that year was low to middling by Memphis standards in the Herenton era — 163,259 compared to 247,973 in 1991 and 104,688 in 2003.
If Hackett is right, then the candidate who collars 70,000 votes could win it, assuming a turnout in the neighborhood of 180,000. A tantalizing thought, that. Because 70,000 votes are only a little more than half of what Herenton and Hackett each got in 1991. So the potentially decisive votes are out there. Victory for a challenger is possible in theory and in fact, contrary to Herenton's assertion that Morris has no chance, mathematically or otherwise.
This year's turnout is anyone's guess. Early voting is on course to set a record, according to Election Commision administrator James Johnson. Monday was the heaviest day yet, with 5,435 votes cast. But early voting, which is easier than ever with short lines and more locations, can simply eat into Election Day voting.
The final turnout is not likely to approach 247,973. In 1991, Hackett was at the top of his game, Herenton was the consensus black challenger, and charismatic master organizers like Harold Ford Sr. and Jesse Jackson lent Herenton their support. Since then, apathy has been the rule. An estimated 150,000 to 250,000 registered and presumably eligible voters don't vote in city elections every four years.
That untapped pool, coupled with the fact that they don't like each other much more than they like Herenton, is what kept Morris, Chumney, and John Willingham in the race. The king is wounded. He has reigned a long time. Seventy thousand votes could topple him! The challenge is to go get them.
Whatever the outcome, Memphis will get the leadership it deserves. Herenton has enjoyed the financial support of the city's movers and shakers, who, until this year's unsuccessful attempt to draft A C Wharton, made no effort to find an alternative. If he wins with a plurality, it will be because his opponents and their supporters could not find a consensus. If Chumney or Morris wins, they can thank Herenton fatigue and a federal judge's 1991 now outdated ruling on "minority" representation and runoff elections. And if Herenton wins with a majority, then he was right and Dick Hackett and a lot of other people were flat wrong about the mayor's popularity.