Let's not kid ourselves, as most of the direct participants have, about the outcome of the showdown over the 2008 Tennessee Voter Confidence Act. When Nashville chancellor Russell Perkins declined last week to issue the injunction sought by plaintiffs trying to force the hand of stonewalling state election authorities, he in effect foreclosed on a guarantee that the act can be enforced in 2010.
Without such an injunction, it seems clear that Secretary of State Tre Hargett and state Election Coordinator Mark Goins will attempt to run the clock out until January when the legislature convenes again. And the Republican majorities in both houses, fully alert now to how the game is being played, will pick up where they left off in the 2009 legislative session. That was when, on the eve of the General Assembly's adjournment, they tried to vote a postponement of the act's provisions until after the 2010 election cycle but narrowly failed to do so, essentially because a handful of key GOP members happened to be elsewhere on the day of the vote.
That oversight will be corrected in January, when party discipline will rule the day. The reality is that Democrats want the TVCA in effect for the 2010 election cycle and the Republicans don't. The GOP will have the votes, and all that remains to be seen is whether the act is merely postponed or amended or quashed altogether.
Back in 2008, when with virtual bipartisan unanimity it passed the legislature, the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act provided that each of the state's 95 counties be outfitted by 2010 with optical-scan machines capable of reading paper ballots so as to provide an accurate electronic count while also creating a "paper trail" for recounts in case of challenges to the results.
Several things happened after the passage of the act to undermine the happy uniformity in support of it. First, the Democrats lost control of the legislature in the 2008 elections, with the result that Republicans, for the first time ever, would now control all 95 county election commissions, as well as all state election-oversight positions. Next, both parties began to gravitate toward public attitudes about elections that are polar opposites. Democrats believe that they prosper with the widest possible extension of the franchise. The more restrictive Republicans are ever on guard against what they see as organized, even random, voter roundups by their ideological adversaries.
Although in theory the TVCA should be neutral in its implications, it has come to be identified with the Democrats' more expansive view of the franchise and has suffered the consequences. Republicans — and, yes, that includes Hargett and Goins — have organized against it. They may posture and fume about their belief, specifically discredited by Perkins, that 2002-vintage optical-scan machines are insufficient to fulfill the requirements of the TVCA. But it seems obvious that an overriding motive is to forestall vote challenges during an election year in which state Republicans can hold on to enough legislative seats to control redistricting for the decade which follows.
That's what this battle has been about, in a nutshell. And, for all the rosy hopes still being expressed by advocates of TVCA, that battle now seems close to being over.