Protection Racket 

Addressing the lingering but increasingly moot question of the 2008 Tennessee Voter Confidence Act, Tennessee secretary of state Tre Hargett last week insisted in Memphis that "we're going to be prepared to implement that law, no matter what" and went on to float two options. One was to lease optical-scan voting machines with 2002-vintage specificatons; another was to buy newer ones, scheduled to be marketed next spring.

Either set of machines would do what the TVCA — passed with virtual bipartisan unanimity by the 2008 General Assembly — required for the 2010 election cycle statewide: namely, count paper ballots so as to provide both an immediate electronic total and the reliability of a "paper trail" to ensure accuracy.

Hargett and state election coordinator Mark Goins had for almost a year been basing much of their opposition to implementing the TVCA on the premise that no machines were available that met specificatons of the U.S. Election Assistance Commisson. Nashville chancellor Russell Perkins effectively removed that objection in a recent ruling that extant machines meeting the commission's 2002 guidelines would be adequate for the task.

Unfortunately, Perkins declined to grant plaintiffs' request for an injunction directing state officials to proceed forthwith in implementing the TVCA — evidently trusting Hargett and Goins to proceed on their own in good faith.

We have noted editorially — and skeptically — once before that such good faith seemed to be lacking and that the question of implementing the act had manifestly become a partisan one, with state Democrats calling for strict compliance in time for next year's elections and Republican officials doing their best to resist.

We predicted the next step, and, lo and behold, there it was last week in Hargett's assertion — a fallback one, as it were — that "this has always been about the cost to the various counties" and that "the real question is if there are other costs required of the counties. We can purchase the machines, but that's all we can do." This was followed by this ominous declaration by Hargett: "I understand that the Senate is going to go back in January and take the necessary steps to protect the taxpayers throughout the state."

This "protection," of course, will take the form of postponing, amending, or revoking the TVCA.

Such obstructionism would be rash and unnecessary, and the argument behind it is disingenuous. The fact is, as Hargett concedes, that the federal government has already allocated enough funding — $25 million worth — to cover all purchase and retrofitting expenses in the 93 counties without optical-scan voting capability. Two counties already use the technology and have demonstrably saved money in the process.

For whatever reason, the state's Republican hierarchy seems to have decided, after acquiring a legislative majority in the 2008 elections and gaining control of the state'e electoral machinery, that implementing the TVCA, with its strict controls over vote fraud, would menace their interests. We're not sure why. What we are sure of is that we can do without the "protection" scheme heralded by Hargett.

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