Saturday, June 30, 2018

Election Commission Gives In, Gives Each Party an Umbrella Site for Early Voting

Agri-Center out as single meta-site; Abundant Grace and New Bethel are paired sites for partisan compromise.

Posted By on Sat, Jun 30, 2018 at 10:36 AM

click to enlarge Members of Election Commission listening intently to presentations at Friday's special called meeting - JB
  • JB
  • Members of Election Commission listening intently to presentations at Friday's special called meeting

Friday’s confrontation of the Shelby County Election Commission with aroused Democrats and other complainants about last-minute changes in early-voting sites for the August 2 election round reached its conclusion in a way that was easy to predict going in.

After two hours of argumentation by witnesses, punctuated by moments of genuine concern, passionate emotion, and some grandstanding as such, the Election Commission voted unanimously in favor of a motion by Democratic Commissioner Norma Lester to authorize four extra days of voting services at an easily accessible site in unmistakably Democratic territory, Abundant Grace Fellowship on Shelby Drive.

This site, previously listed as one of 26 satellite sites for early voting, would be balanced by assigning four extra days for voting services to an accessible site in the Republican hinterland, at New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church on Poplar Pike in Germantown. Losing its special status in the trade-off was the Agri-Center on Walnut Grove, which had previously been designated as the one central site to be open for all days in the forthcoming Early Voting span, which begins July 13 and ends on July 28.

click to enlarge Shelby County Democrats' chairman Corey Strong at the mic - JB
  • JB
  • Shelby County Democrats' chairman Corey Strong at the mic

Technically, there will be three sites open throughout the period of early-voting, since, as Election Administrator Linda Phillips said at the close of the meeting, state law apparently requires that one site connected with the administration of elections serve in that capacity. So, she said, the EC office on Nixon Drive at Shelby Farms, site of Friday's meeting, will also be an umbrella site for the entire early-voting period.

Voting in this second round of voting in 2018 will conclude on August 2, election day as such for the county general election, for selected suburban municipal positions, and for state and federal primaries.

Originally, the early-voting sites for this election round had been understood to be the same as for county primary voting, which ended in May after using 21 satellite sites for early-voting, with none of them scheduled to be open for extra days. (Election Administrator Linda Phillips would say on Friday that this had been an oversight, that the norm in local elections was to designate one site to be open for extra times though the early-voting period. That site was usually at the Election Commission’s downtown office.)

Last week, however, the EC announced five extra sites over the ones previously used in April for the May 1 election. Of these new sites, three were in disproportionately Republican areas, one in a “50/50”zone, and one in a Democratic area in South Memphis. That distribution — added for the sake of previously underserved areas, said Administrator Phillips and EC chairman Meyers — raised hackles among Democrats and others, as did the timing of the announced changes.

But the most provocative change proved to be the EC’s simultaneous designation of the Agri-Center as the one site that would be open and accessible throughout the early-voting period for Round Two, starting our days earlier than the rest of the satellite sites.

In complaints that made the rounds of social media, at a press conference held at the County Building early in the week, and finally at a raucous public hearing on Wednesday at the County Commission, protesters said the changes had been sudden and blindsiding, clearly favored Republicans, had not taken without consulting the public, and erred especially by the designation as an umbrella location of the Agri-Center, which is situated in suburbia and cannot be accessed by public transportation.

The furor made necessary Friday’s specially called meeting of the Election Commission, where the same sorts of accusations were made, in quantity. Prominent local Democrats, like the party’s Shelby County chair Corey Strong, County Commissioner Eddie Jones, and longtime School Board member Sara Lewis, had their say, with Strong insisting that the overriding issue the Election Commission should be concerned about was “getting people to the polls, nothing else.”

In style, the protests ran the gamut from the precise and logical to the agitated and the emotional. At one point, there was a brief but energetic chant from the audience of “All Sites!/ All Days!” — the chant signifying the opinion of many attendees that the proper solution of the controversy would be to assign the four extra days of accessibility to all of the early-voting sites, not just one or two.

The highlight of the 
click to enlarge South Africa native Ann Rief (at left) made the meeting's most passionate  request for change, then bashfully withdrew  to the periphery, shunning further attention. - JB
  • JB
  • South Africa native Ann Rief (at left) made the meeting's most passionate request for change, then bashfully withdrew to the periphery, shunning further attention.
 meeting seemed, to many observers, to come from Anne Rief, a Shelby Countian who had immigrated from South Africa. Her expression of devotion to her adopted country and her highly passionate expression of a palpable fear that some version of apartheid might be lurking in the revised schedule of early-voting sites visibly affected significant numbers of the attendees and members of the Election Commission as well.

EC Chairman Meyers had opened the meeting by insisting that the Election Commission made its decisions in a “50-50” manner and that, “We try very hard to be bipartisan.” Though he was to be greeted with jibes here and there in the crowd, Lester attempted to corroborate that sentiment, though she made it clear that she had been on vacation and had not been present when the EC voted the changes to the early-voting site schedule and that, had she been there, “my voice would have been heard.”

Democrat Lester said she would have opposed the designation of Agri-Center as an umbrella site, though she had been relatively untroubled by the disproportionately Republican nature of the newly added satellites, noting that the original list of 21 satellite sites had tilted in favor of Democrats. The main issue of the whole affair, she said, was one of perception, and “we owe the public an apology.”

What the public got was that, plus a fix that whose approximate terms could have been predicted from the onset of the controversy.

Democratic chair Strong was among several Democrats who couldn't be persuaded, either that the outcome was, in fact, a legitimate compromise, or that it resolved essential issues of turnout. In an online post, Strong had this to say:

"No matter what the Election Commission has done, the Democratic ticket needs 15k+ non-August Democrats to show up and moderate/suburban Dems to not cross over and vote for the demonstrably racist, homophobic, unethical, and unqualified Republican nominees. There is no press release, lawsuit, or other protest that will get those voters to the poll. If you aren't identifying your share of that 15 k to get to the polls, then start NOW!"

To which Strong's GOP counterpart, RPSC chair Lee Mills responded:

"The Republican Party of Shelby County calls upon Democrats around the county, state and country to condemn the statements of Shelby County Democrat Chairman Corey Strong.

As usual, the Democrat Party leads the race to the bottom by name calling, labeling and outright lying about Republican candidates and their views.

This type of tactic should be condemned in the strongest possible terms."

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