A persistent myth holds that Strother Martin's line in Cool Hand Luke, "What we got here is failure to communicate," was the origin of that well-worn phrase. It wasn't, of course. Martin, who played a beady-eyed old chain-gang captain in that 1967 movie, was assigned the line for ironic effect, changing its impact forever.
The line was originated by social clinicians back in the '50s and couldn't have been played straighter. It knocked around for years as a cliché of what the critic Lionel Trilling (playing it equally straight) called "the liberal imagination" before being liberated and repurposed by scriptwriter Frank Pierson in the shake-'em-up '60s.
As a description of a Saturday afternoon event sponsored by an organization called the Voting Rights Coalition, the phrase would apply both ways. The program, which essentially put members of the Shelby County Election Commission up against a roomful of critics at Hooks Central Library, was emceed by state representative G.A. Hardaway and moderated by Lexie Carter, co-proprietor (with sometime Flyer columnist Cheri DelBrocco) of the KWAM-AM radio show Eyes on Memphis.
For two hours, election commission administrator Rich Holden and three members of the commission — Republicans Steve Stamson and Dee Nollner and Democrat George Monger — heard out audience members on subjects ranging from the need to accommodate Hispanic voters to the staffing of polling places to the troublesome issues of election glitches and voter purges.
It was on the latter two matters that the conversation ceased to be a dialogue and became something of a flame session — at least between an increasingly riled group of predominantly Democratic attendees and the Republican representatives of the election commission. (Democrat Monger was a late and largely passive participant, having driven all the way from Virginia to get there.)
The main points of contention involved the case of 488 African-American Democrats whose voter histories were feared to have been mysteriously erased and the election commission's recently concluded purge of the voter rolls, which had generated suspicions of wholesale eliminations of previously eligible voters.
Patiently and calmly (a little too calmly to suit the audience), Holden and Nollner, in the main, attempted to offer reassurances that A) no voter histories had been erased and B) no unusual pruning of the rolls had occurred. Their protestations were greeted with a general disbelief, summed up by Democratic activist Carmen Johnson, who rose from her seat toward the end of the proceedings, said, "I just don't trust you!" and headed out the door.
It is probably accurate to say that two-way communication failed because, like Johnson, many Democrats in attendance believed, or affected to believe, that the Republicans who now control the commission are attempting by fair means or foul to suppress the votes of Democrats, while the Republicans came off as a little too technical or blasé in their efforts to account for the glitch issues and at times seemed to minimize the concerns of the audience.
Part of the problem is simply the enormous difference between the simple but majestic principle of "one-man, one-vote" (or "one-person, one-vote," as would more likely be said today) and the abstruse and complicated language of voting technology these days.
Whether it's Rich Holden explaining the step-by-step process whereby a "report generator" (a person? a machine? a bird? a plane?) misread a computerized tick from a school board runoff election or Steve Griffy, the state systems administrator whose tenure spans Democratic and Republican administrations, discoursing at length on the various databases in use at both local and state levels, it ain't easy to grasp, and knowing something about politics isn't really much of a help. "Al Gore" is one thing; "algorithms" are quite another. There is no way to talk about this stuff without it sounding at some point like a shell game.
But, miraculously perhaps, there seemed to be a meeting of the minds Monday afternoon at another gathering — this one arranged by state senator Jim Kyle at the election commission's Shelby Farms headquarters on Nixon Drive. That's where the aforesaid Steve Griffy was on hand along with Tennessee election coordinator Mark Goins and other state officials, as were, once again, the members of the Shelby County Election Commission.
As he had been last year when he appeared at several Memphis meetings to explain the mechanics of the state's then new photo-ID law, Goins seemed properly responsive and thorough. (He and Norma Lester, secretary of the Shelby County Election Commission and a Democrat, are in frequent contact and have clearly developed a relationship of trust.)
On one point especially, Goins was emphatic. Anything smacking of criminality in the voting process or any error resulting in an actual loss of voter data would be regarded as "very serious" to the point of his "acting as prosecutor" in tandem with the state Attorney General's Office and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. He acknowledged that his office had been alarmed by the election-day glitch of the August 2010 county general election in Shelby County, which saw several hundred voters erroneously, if temporarily, barred from voting because of a database error.
After a lengthy discussion, just about everybody seemed to agree that charges both locally and in Nashville regarding improper purging of voter lists had been overstated or ill-founded. Goins made the claim that, of 3.9 million eligible voters in Tennessee, there had been only three provable cases of improper purging, and those, he said, were "property rights" voters, people whose use of an address other than that of their residence had confused the issue.
Kyle, Hardaway (on hand again), and others dutifully put forth all of the concerns that have roiled the waters, and at the meeting's end, Kyle reviewed the concerns about 488 allegedly missing voting histories locally (and 11,000 statewide), as well as the 125,000-odd "inactive" but eligible voters in Shelby County, and said to Goins, "You're telling us tonight that ...there are no missing records and no missing histories?"
When Goins answered with a firm yes, there was no audible dissent. If nothing else, a mood of mutual trust — or the appearance of one — seemed to have been created, and election commission chairman Robert Meyers, who has clearly felt beleaguered of late by what he called "ugly accusations," offered that he would be "happy to have somebody come in to look at our systems" and to review what is, after all, "the people's data."
Not that everything was perfect kumbaya. It wasn't for Darrick Harris, a local Democratic activist who has probed the local election process relentlessly since, he said, he discovered that his voting history seemed to have vanished as far back as 2009, a year before the 2010 school board runoff election, which has been put forth as the source of the glitched (but allegedly harmless) report of 488 "erased" voting histories.
Yes, he said, his voting records now seemed to be in order, but was that only because his case had been made public? What about others that so far haven't been?
Communication is happening, but questions will remain.