Jul 19 2012

Seeking Truth – #VoteShelby

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

Inaction is the enemy of progress.

Last night the Shelby County Election Commission met for their monthly meeting. Of course, there was a lot to discuss. In particular, the current election and challenges voters throughout Shelby County have been having receiving the correct ballots.

The meeting itself wasn’t all that interesting…aside from a reported employee dispute that led to said employee gathering their things and walking out of the meeting. I had no idea it was ok to do that! Who knew?

Other than that, the meeting was rather dry, as these things often are by design. It’s hard to maintain the wherewithal to question things when you’ve been lulled into a stupor by slow moving meetings. It’s an endurance test…sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, often its a draw.

So here’s a report on the meeting, the resolutions to issues and the issues that still lack resolution. I’m going to try and keep this short, but, well, you know me.

What We Know Right Now

1. Elections are ongoing and there have been multiple issues with people receiving incorrect ballots. The Election Commission asserts these issues have been resolved and there should be no more. We’ll see.

2. The TN Secretary of State’s office is sending auditors to check the voter file for mistakes. This is happening today, though I have no idea when the results of the audits will be available.

3. The minutes from the June 13th meeting will not be published for another month. Apparently one Commissioner didn’t have time to review them.

4. The Election Commission has reversed its position on the cause of the delay in updating the voter file until June 13th. As recently as June 26th, the position was that the County Commission was to blame. This, apparently, is no longer the case. The Commission is investigating to find out what the hold-up was.

What We Don’t Know

1. We don’t know for sure that the voter file has been correctly updated. Perhaps we will find out after the external audit by the TNSOS.

2. We don’t know how many people received the wrong ballot (both in Municipal elections and from incorrect House District coding) since the start of the election.

3. We don’t know how this will impact the election, except that the inaccuracy of the voter file calls everything into question.

What Next

We need real answers instead of hedges. While the Election Commission admits errors, there’s little willingness on the body to take responsibility for those errors. Being told “We’ll look into it” is tantamount to being told “We’ll get to you when we’re ready”.

I just want the truth. Why did they wait? What I heard from people at the meeting off record was that Administrator Holden directed staff to not update the file against staff recommendations. So then why? If its not the County Commission’s fault anymore, whose is it?

Has the blame shifting game that the Election Commission has been engaged in for upwards of 5 months come crashing down on them? They may have overplayed their hand, but that doesn’t mean they’re busted. Telling a half-truth to the public apparently doesn’t have the same consequences that telling one in court does…and even less oversight.

Not all the Commissioners are doing this. Some are very open about it…on both sides of the partisan aisle. So why can’t the Commission whole just be open about it?

Either way, this will be resolved, and resolved in a way that reveals the truth. The sanctity of our elections and our vote rises above all partisanship. People on both sides of the partisan divide have been negatively impacted. This isn’t about D’s or R’s…its about have safe and reliable elections and trustworthy information from public officials.

Jul 18 2012

More Details Election Commission Mistakes…Misstatements – #ShelbyVote

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

Division of Units for US Census and Redistricting

Yesterday morning I noted the issues facing some voters in municipalities seeking to vote in school referenda. I also linked to several news reports detailing issues faced by voters.

Last night, the Commercial Appeal reported that the issues had been resolved and all was well. Unfortunately, that is not exactly the case.

A voter living in HD93 reported last night that he was given the wrong ballot when he went in to vote. After a long meeting this morning, the Election Commission has confirmed that they placed his Census Block in the incorrect district. According to the voter, they have corrected the issue and as of this morning he was able to vote in the correct district.

The problem facing this voter, and apparently others revolves around a couple issues:

  • The TN State House chose to redistrict based on Census Block rather than voting precinct. This creates a greater level of complexity and thus a higher potential for error, however, according to this TN State Comptroller’s report, it is allowable. (p. 32)
  • Because the Election Commission waited to begin entering State data until mid-June (per the last meeting held on June 13), the shortened time frame opened up additional error potential. The rationale for this delay was publicly stated as waiting on the County Commission to finish redistricting. I’ll come back to this point later.
  • All state redistricting information was finalized and published by February 14th of this year according to the Tennessee General Assembly’s website (State House, State Senate, US Congress). This means, to date there have been 5 months for the Election Commission to work on this information to ensure the data is correct.

    In addition, the newly formed Unified School Board districts (1-7) were approved by the County Commission on 1/23/12, giving the local Election Commission ample time to make updates to their system.

    Missed Deadlines, Lots of Excuses

    The County Commission did miss their 1/1/12 redistricting deadline, which led to a lawsuit that was resolved on 6/14/12 by Chancellor Arnold Goldin even though it wasn’t reported until 2 days later. This effectively removed the stated barrier to the Election Commission fulfilling its duty to update voter information to reflect the new districts.

    However,despite repeated claims by both Elections Commissioners and the Administrator of elections, I have been able to find no law, nor have they been able to provide me with any legal basis for the claim that County Commission redistricting had to be complete before the voter file could be updated. Here’s what we know:

  • State Senate Districts Cannot split a Precinct
  • County Commission Districts Cannot split a Precinct, except in certain instances
  • State House Districts CAN split a Precinct so long as they’re based on Census Blocks (Source p. 31-32)
  • There is no guidance on School Boards or other divisions of government in this document. Further, there is nothing that says one kind of district cannot split another kind of district. The only prohibition is the precincts themselves.

    For instance, the district I’m currently running in, County Commission District 1 contains portions of 3 old Senate districts, 28, 30, and 31 and portions of EVERY SINGLE NEW SENATE DISTRICT in Shelby Co. I have found no prohibition in state law that states that PCT A and PCT B right next to it can’t be in the same Senate Districts but different Commission districts…or the other way around.

    Indeed, it would be impossible for this to happen as our current County Commission districts are larger than a State Senate district by some 30,000 people or more.

    Furthermore, the deadline for County Commission redistricting, as I state before, was 1/1/12, but the Senate districts weren’t approved and published until 2/14/12. How could these two sets of districts conform to each other in any way under these circumstances? It would be up to the State Senate to conform to the County Commission…something they’re not likely to do.

    Just to confirm this, I called the Tennessee State Comptroller’s Office of Local Government. State law says NOTHING about commission districts and Senate districts conforming…only that each precinct in total must not be split in those two classes of districts. This means the Election Commission’s claim that County Redistricting slowed down the process of updating the voter file is not only bogus, but a gross misstatement of the truth, as Holt got Richard Holden to confirm here.

    So, the only way the lack of new County Commission districts impacts the Election Commission’s ability to update the voter file is if their primary focus is precinct consolidation.

    Shortening the List

    Obviously, without the benefit of County Commission redistricting information, precinct consolidation cannot happen. However, it does not preclude the Election Commission from updating other information in anticipation of said new County Commission districts, especially when a County General election, a slew of municipal referenda, and a State Primary election is bearing down on you.

    Precinct Consolidation may be something that needs to happen. It may help us have better, less complicated elections. If may lower the cost of those elections. But it cannot be primary focus of the Election Commission. That should be the business of holding error free elections. Sure errors may occur, but the likelihood is much higher when the focus is placed on something other than the elections themselves…like precinct consolidation.

    Check Your Ballot Carefully

    There have been reports of other people having similar issues to the ones reported by Holt in other districts. Based on the most recent Participating Voter List available…which only covers the 579 voters from the first two days of voting, as many as 31 voters may have been given the wrong ballot unknowingly. That’s a 5.4% margin of error…something even the shadiest pollster wouldn’t accept.

    You shouldn’t either. Before you go to the polls do a couple of things.

    1. Check you State House and Senate districts on a map here.
    2. Check to see if the information matches at the Shelby County Election Commission website.

    If it does, you should be good to go.

    If not, when you go vote, be prepared to follow the following steps to ensure your vote is counted correctly:

    1. They should be prepared before going to the polling place. Know who they will vote for and know their precinct number. Their precinct number is on their voter registration card and on the sheet of paper (ballot application) they sign at the polls.
    2. The poll worker is supposed to walk them to a voting machine, the voter inserts the voting card; on the upper left hand side of the screen their
    precinct number will appear. The worker compares those numbers with the voter and then steps away so the voter can vote privately.
    3. If those numbers do not match a new card is programmed and the same confirming procedure is followed.
    4. If the numbers match but the voter realizes at some point during the voting process that something is missing from his ballot he should STOP immediately
    and summons the officer.
    5. NEVER EVER push that final “cast ballot” button until after carefully checking the summary page. The summary page shows the choices you have made; if any are incorrect they can be corrected at that point. Some voters have a light touch and the machine fails to acknowledge their choice,if so, they should touch the choice until it correctly appears on the screen. Once that confirmation-Cast-Ballot-Button is pushed, nothing can be done about that ballot. It has been cast.
    HOWEVER – if the voter notices a problem, before he pushes that final button, and waits until the officer comes to him the officer can void that ballot, and resolve the problem
    right then and there.

    via Election Commissioner Dee Nollner

    If the poll worker doesn’t want to hear it, make sure your ballot was cancelled then call (901) 222-1200 and lodge a formal complaint.

    One more thing…

    Richard Holden’s admission as reported by Holt that they weren’t legally precluded to updating the voter file by County Commission redistricting is something new. The line on that misstatement has finally broken and been confirmed by another agency.

    This was an administrative decision, not a legal requirement. Media agencies should call Election Officials out if they revert to this line, as they have provided no legal basis for the claim.

    Jul 17 2012

    Voting Problems Cast Doubt on the Process…Again

    Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

    Check your ballot, Holden's Election Commission is at it again

    Before I begin, I want to say there’s no question that elections in Shelby County are difficult. Lots of moving parts, with lawsuits, annexations, and all sorts of other issues.

    That caveat out of the way, just because something is hard, doesn’t mean we the citizens of Shelby County should be ok with consistent and persistent failures from the administration of the Election Commission. This is one area where failure truly is not an option.

    But failure is what we’ve been getting and it reared its ugly head again yesterday on revelations in Bartlett, Collierville, and Millington some voters were not getting the opportunity to vote on their Municipal schools issues due to one of many mistakes from the Election Commission Administration.

    This is NOT about whether you support the municipal schools referenda or not. It is about the sanctity and accuracy of the ballot. When the agency charged with administering elections can’t even get it right, it damages confidence in the process all the way around.

    I’ve been writing about and watching the Administration of the Election Commission on this and other issues for a little over a month. In that time there have been multiple issues that have popped up creating uncertainty and confusion for voters and people dedicated to helping inform the electorate. Here are a few of them:

  • In June, just a month before the start of Early Voting, the Administration reported they had not completed updating the voter file to reflect new districts in Federal, State and Local races, even though that information was available to them in January
  • At that June meeting, the Administration reported that they did not know when the new district information would be complete, as they had not even started. They claimed the lack of resolution on County Commission redistricting was to blame even though those elections with new districts will not happen until 2014.
  • In addition to the lack of current information, the Administration offered a “hurry up” resolution that had not been seen until that meeting recommending consolidation or change of voting location for 17 precincts. One of the Bartlett precincts in question was consolidated at this meeting.
  • These issues are troubling, but once again, the response from Administrator Holden is perhaps the most troubling of all.

    “There’s issues in every election,” said Shelby County Election Administrator Richard Holden. (Source)

    Seriously? Thats confidence building.

    But this quote is perhaps even more troubling:

    “There are always issues the first day. We have 13 days to get everything straightened out before the Aug. 2 election.” – Election Commission chairman Robert Meyers (Source) CA Link

    Talk about the wrong message! No you don’t have 13 days to “get it straightened out”. It never should have been wrong in the first place.

    But this little snippet at the end of the CA article is perhaps the most telling:

    “Today is Election Day and polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.” said the recorded message on the commission’s main phone number.

    That’s incorrect. Early voting runs from 10am to 7pm M-F and 10am to 4pm on Saturday at satellite locations according to the Word Document the Election Commission provides with Early Voting information.

    They can’t even get their voicemail message right.

    We need to ask ourselves why it is ok to have consistent problems with our elections?

    We need to ask why its ok to allow an administrator to remain in their job when they admit they regularly fail to resolve issues before the election.

    There will be mistakes sometimes, and humans make errors, but this will be the second August election in a row that features foibles from the Elections Administrator. Is that acceptable?

    See, other places don’t have this problem. Other places have efficient and effective election operations, largely free of the errors. We have, for whatever reason, come to accept and expect errors here in Shelby Co.

    It doesn’t have to be this way.

    Tomorrow the Election Commission meets at 4:30 pm, 980 Nixon Rd. for their monthly meeting. The voting public deserves real answers about why these issues are allowed to persist.

    This isn’t a partisan issue, or a personal crusade against Richard Holden. However, with nearly four years under his belt as the administrator of the Shelby County Election Commission, these problems should have been resolved by now. That they’re not says something about his leadership, and his ability to administer elections.

    We deserve answers instead of excuses.

    We deserve elections we can have confidence in.

    So far, we haven’t gotten either.

    New Reports on Ballot Problems

    School Vote Ballot Glitch Frustrates Voters
    Several issues plague early Shelby County voters
    Voting Issues Reported When School Vote Question Doesn’t Appear
    Residents in Collierville annex asked to wait on early school vote
    Problems Arise as Suburban Voters Cast Ballots for Schools
    No smooth sailing yet for suburban voters (Commercial Appeal Link)

    Jul 02 2012

    Voter Info Updated…31 Days Out from Election Day #ShelbyVote

    Posted by Steve Ross in elections

    You'll see fewer of these signs this August

    Over the weekend, with little fanfare, the Shelby County Election Commission re-activated their precinct locator with updated information for the November election.

    You can find it here.

    As of this writing, the “Where to Vote” button, that was featured on the front page is still gone, so maybe they’re in testing mode.

    Either way, this feature has returned…and now with accurate information.

    Its interesting that the County Commission districts still reflect the current scenario. Kind of challenges the assertion that Commission redistricting was the “cause” of the hold-up. With two years left before Commission elections, updating that information would have been confusing to a lot of people.

    Maybe they’ve got another version of the database ready to go for the 2014 cycle. We’ll see.

    In other news, I’m hearing that people who will be voting in new locations are receiving letters from the Commission notifying them of the change. This is also encouraging.

    We’re just 12 days away from early voting. Take a few minutes and verify your voting location. While you’re there, take a moment to review the ballot.

    Don’t forget to bring your ID when you vote. This applies to Early Voting and Election Day voting.

    Finally, here is a map of early voting locations. You can also download a Word Document of the locations.

    Vote early…vote often! (That means every election FYI)

    Jun 14 2012

    A Little Resolution, A Lot of Cold Comfort – #voteshelby

    Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

    You'll see fewer of these signs this August

    As I’ve noted in my last two posts, the business of the Shelby County Election Commission has been about as easy to pick through as high density, double reinforced concrete. There’s so little information available, and the information that is available is plain useless. So I decided to spend 3 hours of my day sitting through a public meeting at the election operations center near the Penal Farm.

    What an eye opener. Not because so many questions were answered, but because I got to really see the problem…which is multi-fasceted.

    A Little Resolution

    Precincts Impacted by Consolidation or Voting Location Changes

    The actual business of the Election Commission was fairly dry, except for one issue that may be of interest to about 77,500 voters.

    A resolution, which saw no disclosure prior to the meeting, and was not publicly available for comment, was passed that consolidates precincts, and portions of precincts for the August election. A rough map of the impacted precincts is included to the right. I’ve scanned the resolution and made it available here (PDF).

    The rationale for these consolidations and voting location changes was to comply with ADA standards and address closed voting locations.

    These things happen, and I’m sympathetic with the Commission’s efforts to ensure people have access to the voting location. However, it was mentioned that the resolution was drafted just hours before the committee meetings began, which leaves effectively zero time for the Commissioners themselves, much less the public, to inspect the proposed changes.

    With just 51 days to election day, and no prior public disclosure, as many as 77,500 voters will have a new voting location in August. Based on the number of active voters the Election Commission reports, that means about 18% of all voters in the County will have to be notified of changes (numbers based on those reported in the resolution).

    That’s an awful lot of people impacted even though the total number or precincts only changed from 236 to 219.

    Ed. Note: I am told that the Election Commission is required to give prior notice of resolutions that impact precincts and/or voting locations. Failing to do so may be a violation of open meetings/open records laws. I’ll be checking into this over the coming days and report my findings in a future post.

    Cold Comfort

    There was a discussion at the meeting about public access to information and the business of the Commission. Below are some of the issues discussed. Nothing, by the way was resolved.

    1. The public disclosure of what is to be discussed at the actual meeting has been lackluster for some time. Before the January 27, 2011 meeting, bullet points of discussion were included in the agenda. After that time, those discussion points became fewer and fewer. This is further hampered by the fact that the committees meet earlier in the day, on the same day as the Commission, and that the Commission only meets once a month. So items for discussion that come up in committee either have to be dealt with on that evening’s agenda, or put off for a month. I want to thank Commissioner Lester for bringing this issue up, and hope that the Commission endeavors to increase advance disclosure of the topics for discussion in their July meeting.

    2. The one month lag between the meeting and the publishing of minutes, as I have noted before, is somewhat understandable. Minutes must be approved before they can be published…I get that. But in observing the meeting, I saw that it was being recorded…albiet on a less than ideal device. The presence of that recording makes me wonder why they haven’t been publishing the audio…even in its raw form, until the minutes are approved. When I asked members of the commission (from both sides of the aisle), I was told that they didn’t know enough about it to know what was possible. The solution is not just shrugging your shoulders…its asking if its possible, and if not…why. It would resolve a truism of life: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and you might not like the story they tell.

    3. There’s a lot of tension in the room. Some of the questions asked got answered with a terseness that I felt was unnecessarily defensive, dismissive, and disrespectful. I observed this on several occasions. The message in the answers and the delivery of those answers is effectively that the questions themselves have no merit. This is compounded by what seemed to be softness in the lingo (names of reports, functions, and job descriptions) that can create unnecessary confusion. I’ve experienced this myself when asking for specific reports from the Commission, often with mixed results.

    No Comfort At All

    After the meeting, I and a few other interested individuals at the meeting spoke with several of the Commissioners about the problems relating to gaining information about the upcoming election in August…particularly as it relates to the Unified School Board.

    Some of this discussion was broached in the meeting…particularly the precinct locator function that Administrator Holden reports is the single most popular feature of the website.

    Its wrong, and there’s no ETA for it being right.

    So, considering the changes made to nearly every district up for a vote this August, and the addition of a whole new class of districts (the Unified School Board), the Election Commission has no way of informing voters about what districts they will be voting in this August.

    Even the most recent Ward and Precinct Stat File is incorrect. It not only doesn’t list the new Congressional, State House and Senate seats…it doesn’t even have a field for Unified School Board.

    I was told there is no way to find this information out, even though the new districts we will be voting on in 51 days have been known since January 23.

    The rationale for the delay is still the lack of a County Commission district plan. Considering the County Commission isn’t up for election for another two years, this excuse is bunk.

    That there is no way to gain this information is simply negligent. While I understand that the workers at the Election Commission are working as hard as they can, it seems evident that they have been directed to wait for the elusive decision by the County Commission.

    That’s just a poor administrative decision that will negatively impact the outcome of the August election.

    I guess what surprised me most was that there was no outrage or even surprise at this revelation, which, more than anything else describes the problem.

    Inconclusive Conclusion

    The paternalistic nature of the entire meeting, the tension, the willingness to shrug and move on, all point to a culture of acquiescence from the Commissioners themselves. I understand that serving on the Commission is a huge time commitment, and that everyone has busy lives, but the issue at hand here is the security (both real and perceived) of the voting franchise.

    Some of the muted, but present defensiveness from staff members and Commissioners leads one to believe there is more interest in protecting the honor of the Election Commission itself rather than performing the necessary due diligence to inform the public, and thereby, protect both the voting franchise and the Commission. This is the kind of perspective that results from a bunker mentality that is all too pervasive in Boards and Commissions throughout Shelby County.

    Transparency isn’t difficult. It just has to be intentional. It doesn’t happen by accident or happenstance. It has to be in the forefront of the minds of those who are making the and enacting decisions. While there were assurances that the upcoming precinct consolidations (which will likely be taken up later this year) will be transparent, based on what I observed, this would constitute a massive change in philosophy that is little more than an afterthought in the grand scheme of things.

    I’ve heard, and been told directly in other public meetings that “the process will be transparent” before. In almost every instance these assurances have been fool’s gold. You’ll excuse me if I’m more than a little skeptical about his one.

    I said earlier, and it bears repeating: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will and you may not like the story they tell.

    I’m pretty sure that none of the Commissioners (on either side of the aisle) will like what I’ve said. They probably think I’m being too hard on them or inflexible.

    This isn’t personal.

    If the Commissioners/Commission want less grief, they have the power to reduce it by looking for solutions and working to be more open. Back in 2009 I wrote a very positive post about changes and greater openness at the Commission. I would prefer to be able to do so again rather than point out the failings of the body.

    Commissioners, the power is in your hands, but you have to make it a priority rather than an afterthought. You don’t have to have the know how yourselves…that’s what staff is for. You do have to have the will to start and continue the discussion.

    Further, I and other interested individuals are always available for suggestions. But at the end of the day, its on the Commissioners and administrative staff to enact the changes.

    No one else can do it but you. I hope you will resolve to restore the trust of the people rather than hunker down and ultimately, make the problem worse.