Nov 07 2012

Securing the Vote

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

Election Day is over, and despite some local reports of problems with too few machines in some places and malfunctioning machines in others…it seems to have gone pretty smoothly. Regardless of your political bent, we should all be thankful for that.

It wasn’t that way for everyone, as the video to the left shows. No matter how many times this voter pushes one button, another lights up. It’s pretty freaky if you ask me and more than a little troubling.

This video is from Pennsylvania, not Tennessee. While the problem here is more likely a calibration issue, it certainly doesn’t do much to make folks feel like their vote is secure.

The truth is, the last thing people want is to feel like something shady is going on. That’s the rationale for all kinds of laws that impact voting.

The issue with touch-screen voting is and always has been the lack of a verifiable paper trail. As someone who works with computers all day, and so many of us do these days, we’ve all experienced the “I just lost everything” problem at one time or another. Touchscreen voting machines are just computers. In the absence of a paper trail, we might never know when that happens with touchscreen machines when they catastrophically fail.

In 2006 we made an investment in these machines. It was a bad investment if you ask me. At the time it took Democratic support to get these machines. I get that. But this wasn’t a strictly partisan issue then and it isn’t one now. I think both parties agree that unverifiable elections are unacceptable regardless of who’s in charge.

Since 2006, the company that first made the machines, Diebold, has gotten out of the election business, and many states have moved back to paper ballots.

Considering all the challenges we have here in Shelby Co., the fear about a correct count shouldn’t be one of them. We need to join the two Tennessee counties that got it right in the first place and the many states and local election commissions nationwide that are making the change and adopt paper ballots.

It just makes good sense, and right now is the right time.

Our next County-wide election isn’t until May of 2014…the County Primary. That gives us 17 months to prepare.

This won’t be the only change at the Election Commission. Word on the street is that there’s a top to bottom internal review in the near future, not to mention the Election Review Committee that the County Commission empaneled (of which I am a member). Integrating the shift to paper ballots in the reform process is both an efficient and intelligent way to restore confidence in the process.

There’s a lot more that needs to be done at the Election Commission, but removing one of the key sticking points, the lack of a verifiable paper trail, is one way to begin restoring confidence in the institution tasked with executing our elections.

We should all push to adopt paper ballots now. Here’s how to contact the members of the Shelby County Election Commission:

Chairman Robert Meyers

Norma Lester

George Monger

Dee Nollner

Steve Stamson

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)