Wednesday, February 8, 2006

CITY BEAT: Election Deja Vu

What if Dick Hackett had made like Terry Roland after losing in 1991?

Posted By on Wed, Feb 8, 2006 at 4:00 AM

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What’s the difference between Terry Roland and Dick Hackett?

Both are Republicans and both lost incredibly close elections. But Roland challenged his defeat and Hackett didn’t.

Hackett’s act of statesmanship and political calculation in 1991 probably influenced the course of history more than anything he did during his nine years as mayor. And it’s relevant to the current overblown controversy over Roland’s 13-vote loss to Ophelia Ford in a state Senate race of less heft and consequence.

The lesson is this: What the news media report, what the courts rule, what the lawyers spin, and what the state Senate does are only part of the story. The X-factor is what individuals like Roland and Hackett do in the crucible of personal experience.

A quick lesson in history and deja vu: In 1991, Hackett lost to Willie Herenton by 142 votes out of 247,973 cast. Crank candidate Robert “Prince Mongo” Hodges got 2,923 votes. In 2005, Roland lost to Ford by 13 votes, 4,333 to 4,320. The same Robert Hodges got 89 votes. As a percentage, Ford’s victory margin was greater than Herenton’s.

The 1991 mayoral election was flawed. There were 609 “overvotes,” a term coined to explain the difference between votes cast and signatures in the poll book. An accounting firm that audited the election results said “the differences are unreconciled, and the causes are undetermined.” The majority of the overvotes were in Herenton precincts.

Hackett had the audit. He had the political savvy. He had two capable lieutenants, Bill Boyd and Paul Gurley, with vast experience in Memphis politics. He had more than $300,000 to mount a legal challenge or another campaign. And after three days of thinking about it, he decided to let it go. He did not hire lawyers or private investigators or order campaign workers or city employees to go out and search for dead voters, voters with felony convictions, voters who lived outside of Memphis, or voters who failed to sign either the ballot application or the poll book.

In 247,973 votes — with the mayor’s office at stake — what would you say the odds were of finding some dead people, some felons, some nonresidents, and various other skulduggery? Given that Roland and his team found dozens of irregularities in an election in which fewer than 9,000 votes were cast, I would say they were pretty good.

Not only did Hackett let it go, so did almost everyone else. The Memphis Flyer, then less than two years old and full of bluster, did a cover story detailing the “irregularities,” as Hackett called them, and bawled for reform and investigation. The Commercial Appeal, which has made such a fuss over Terry Roland, was mostly silent. Attorney Richard Fields, who represents Roland, was notable back in 1991 as one of two high-profile white citizens who openly backed Willie Herenton.

U.S. district judge Bernice Donald’s ruling in the Roland-Ford case (in which Ford and her supporters are the plaintiffs) made no mention of the mayoral election. She cites another tainted cliff-hanger, the presidential election between George W. Bush and Albert Gore, in which there were some 110,000 overvotes. A large section of her order speaks to the issue of voters who fail to sign in twice, but it is silent on dead voters and felons.

“Although measures to detect substantial mistakes or illegality may be heightened,” she wrote, “the standard used to invalidate votes should not be.”

There is a difference between voting mistakes, and illegality and fraud. I am not learned in the law, but Donald’s order seems to say that voters can’t be disenfranchised because there were some mistakes but leaves hanging the issue of whether fraud, if proven, can void an election. All it says is that elections must be conducted by the same standards in every part of the state.

Donald’s order doesn’t resolve the Ford-Roland controversy. Senate action won’t resolve it, because Ford’s lawyer has already vowed to come right back to court if she is ousted. The manufactured outrage on both sides won’t resolve it. Elections, at both the local and national level, are imperfect. And Dick Hackett knew what he was doing back in 1991.

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