Less Is More 

Fewer precincts would facilitate voting, eliminate problems, and bring us together.

As I write, the state primary and county general elections are in full swing, and candidates on the August 2nd ballot are making a last-ditch effort to get out the vote.

There are 446,747 active registered voters and another 150,000 inactive but eligible voters assigned to 200 or so precincts in Shelby County. Unfortunately, and even with the impetus in the suburbs for municipal school referenda, a relatively low percentage of that number is expected to go to the polls to vote.  

Voting is a constitutional right and a civic duty, but the age-old ward-and-precinct model has become a hindrance to it. In all 50 states, there are more than 3,000 counties and approximately 13,000 voting districts, many of them, like our own, grappling with voting issues that have become a nightmare.

On July 25th, following a committee meeting at the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, I was engaged in a lunchtime chat with two fellow county commissioners about the local primary races and the upcoming presidential race in November, and a thought occurred to me.

Consider this: I think the democratic process could still work — and work perhaps more effectively and efficiently — with just one-fourth of Shelby County's current 200-odd precincts in operation during election cycles.

For all I know, there might be statutes in place to prevent it from happening. But imagine, if you will, perhaps 50 or so "super precincts," geographically distributed in the way that early-voting venues are now. That number is large enough to making voting accessible to people living anywhere. Voters could cast their ballots at the super precinct nearest their home or at any of the super precincts scattered evenly throughout the county. 

As the experience of early voting has taught us, the technology exists to load a ballot from anywhere in the county on any voting machine regardless of the voting location. As of this week, more than 60,000 people had early-voted, many of them outside their assigned ward and precinct. Increasingly, people prefer to early-vote, and the convenience of that process is one reason.

The electorate today is much more mobile than it was when wards and precincts were first employed. A model that has been in operation since the 1800s has become cumbersome. It is a dinosaur of sorts, and not many people know their ward and precinct anyway.

Reducing the number of precincts would:

• Save the government money by reducing the cost of poll workers.

• Make voting convenient and more manageable for a mobile population.

• Allow for more efficiency with fewer human errors.

• Reassure voters who may find the current process tainted and troublesome.

For any business, sometimes it's necessary to revamp the operation if the existing business model is not effective in both creating new business and keeping the current clientele happy. A businessman myself, I am a proponent of good customer service and providing backup procedures to avoid any foul-ups.

Voters are customers too, and they want a foolproof system to make their trek to the poll less taxing and trouble-free. No system is foolproof, but any system can be adjusted to make voting less problematic.

My party, the Republican Party, now has control of the Shelby County Election Commission. Republicans have long advocated open, free, and fair elections, and commission chairman Robert Meyers, I feel, fully intends to "depoliticize" the election commission and to reinforce confidence in the election process.

But a number of well-publicized glitches have undermined that confidence, as has the impression that some members of the election commission, in both parties, are concerned with promoting partisan ideals. Both factors have caused people at large to question the integrity of their elections.

A significant and systemic reduction of ward and precincts may be one answer to righting the wrongs that confront the system and to breaking down barriers between us. During early voting, it struck me that I might have been the only white guy who voted that day at Dave Wells Community Center, within a historically black precinct area in North Memphis.

Along with convenience, I gained a sense of belonging to a larger public. That by itself would be worth voting for.

Brent Taylor is a former member of the city council and an interim member of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.


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