Oct 09 2015

Time for a change

Posted by Steve Ross in elections

Richard Holden

Richard Holden

Another election, another election night with glitches.

At this point, we don’t really know what caused the problems that marred election night 2015 in Memphis, but what we do know is that the Election Commission isn’t very good at doing elections.

In nearly every election since 2012 there has been some problem. And while some, but not most, of those problems might have been excusable, the response from the Administrator of Elections, Richard Holden, has been nothing short of disdain and ‘get off my lawn’ isms.

An audit in 2012 conducted by the State of Tennessee into the wrong ballots fiasco faulted Holden’s leadership.

The Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission gave the Election Commission a vote of no confidence after problems.

Heck, even Republican Commissioner Wyatt Bunker said enough is enough.

But this isn’t about politics, its about competence. That’s what it was about in the 2012 election when thousands of people got the wrong ballot.

And here we are again, this election, with people getting wrong ballots!

Its not that the job is easy, because it isn’t. But now 5 years into his tenure, Mr. Holden has had plenty of time to get the problems fixed, and not only have they not been fixed, there seems to be no timeline or urgency to fix them.

Taken at 12am from the Shelby County Election Commission results site

Taken at 12am from the Shelby County Election Commission results site

Election Commissioners have tried to vote him out, failing on a party line vote.

Maybe this time it will be different, maybe it won’t.

But if the Commissioners themselves won’t take the mantle that’s been given them by members of the Shelby County Delegation to the Tennessee General Assembly, then one has no other option but to assume they’re just as much a part of the problem as Holden.

We’ll see what they do at the next meeting later this month (it wasn’t posted as of the writing of this post).

May 21 2014

The greatest compliment

Posted by Steve Ross in elections

I’m coming up on my eight year anniversary at this blog, 10th of blogging overall if you count previous platforms now defunct, and the bad old days of literally coding every single thing in html (that really sucked). I really enjoy doing this, even though the pay is bad (none) and the benefits are even worse (none).

But one of the things that keeps me going are the discussions that pop up from time to time as a result of something I’ve written. There really is no greater compliment…whether the reaction is good or bad. Someone took the time to read what I wrote, and then, even more time to respond.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting all kinds of awesome people, on both sides of the aisle. That’s what I treasure most about blogging…the relationships that get built over time.

So it was with a great deal of pleasure that I received an open letter from Shelby County Election Commissioner Dee Nollner regarding this post on the close District 10 race (and more).

I’ve included the full text of the letter below my comments on the issues raised for you to peruse. I figure, if its good enough for all the Democratic email lists out there, its good enough to be searchable so it can be easily found in the future.

If you want to read it first, click here to skip to the bottom of the post. There’s a link down there to get you right back here.


Ms. Nollner:

Thank you for your email. I hope you’ll allow me the opportunity to respond to some of your points.

The issue at hand is whether or not I have my facts straight on a series of questions. I freely admit that as a human, I am prone to error. But I’m not sure the errors pointed out are the best ones to make your case.

Far be it for me to correct you…but I would like to respond to some of the statements you made.

For instance, I was aware that the Election Commission retains two attorneys (a Republican and a Democrat) for advice on election issues. However, there’s no question that Mr. Ryder holds more sway with the Commissioners. Mr. Ryder is very involved in election issues in his role as General Counsel for the RNC, not to mention his prior role as Special Redistricting Counsel to the GOP led TN General Assembly…a process that was held largely in secret.

It is for his body of work both with the Election Commission, and in other places, not his partisan bent or his ability as an attorney to hatch a legal opinion that I question some of his advice the Commission. It is curious that Mr. Ryders recommendations consistently meet the mere letter of the law rather than seek to ease the unease that surrounds the Election Commission…unease which you apparently dispute in your 5th point. I’ll get to that later.

Perhaps Mr. Ryder only believes it is his place to advise on legal matters. But I know Mr. Ryder to be an intelligent man, who is capable of expressing many perspectives on a single issue. Certainly additional insight could be offered if asked for.

Statements 2 & 3 – I agree that no challenge can be made until the election is certified. I never said one way or the other. I merely reported what transpired at a meeting…just like Jackson Baker, who was sitting right next to me.

Its not until later that I get into my opinion on the matter, which in no place did I say there could be a challenge before certification. I merely said the Election Commission should either 1) Publish a schedule of when documents would be available, or 2) Just make them available noting they are preliminary…just like the results in the Commercial Appeal.

Statement 4 – Having spent literally hundreds of hours dissecting the horribly organized SOVC reports for every election since 2006 (which, unquestionably is the worst) for analysis, I am quite aware that absentee ballots and election day ballots aren’t mixed. I never said they were. In fact, it would mess up most of what I wish to analyze if they were mixed. I only said that it is possible some absentee ballots received on election day had not been counted due to human error.

Statement 5 – This one is my favorite. If you’re unaware, or have perhaps forgotten about the past problems at the Election Commission, let me give you a quick refresher.

3000 voters received the wrong ballot in 2012
In that same election, two contests were overturned by a judge, here, and here.
Which led the newspaper of record to as why the Election Commission wasn’t better prepared, which seems like a fair question.
All of this led to the suspension of Elections Administrator Richard Holden, which some believe was too light a punishment.
This was followed by another critical audit of the Election Commission by the Shelby County Government, and eventually a no confidence vote led by a Republican County Commissioner…who you scolded for attacking another Republican…and questioned the basis (which is chronicled above) for the No Confidence vote. The City Council did it too.

In short, you would have to live on a completely different world to believe that there is no chronicle of failures at the Election Commission. Furthermore, the absence of problems in subsequent elections is not “praise worthy”, as I note in the post, because doing exactly what you’re supposed to do is what you’re supposed to do. Doing more than you’re supposed to do is praise-worthy, but that isn’t happening.

In fact, the Election Commission isn’t even doing the bare minimum. Your online meeting notices are behind, as are the available agendas, its interesting to note there is no posted agenda for tonight’s meeting. And the meeting audio link only lists audio from October of 2013.

Statement 7 – I have never once faulted poll workers for anything. I have no idea why you brought this up or them into it. I respect their service, and hope to one day be able to serve in that capacity as well.

I’m not sure what the point of this is, other than to use these innocents as human shields to deflect criticism…which is truly bad form.

Ms. Nollner, I’m happy to help distribute “facts” as you ask. I have, over the course of my time writing here in Memphis, always done so to the best of my ability. The “facts” you assert that I have misstated are not misstatements, except to your perspective. We can agree to disagree, but I will not back down on criticism when criticism is due.

Process is very important to me. Process is the means by which the public can observe what the various organs of government are doing. Violations, real or perceived of process will be met with extreme prejudice…regardless of who commits it.

Ask the State and Local Democratic parties if I have ever withheld criticism for their lack of transparent process. Ask my friends who serve in elective or appointed positions if I have ever held fire on the boards they serve on. I am very consistent on this point.

So when the information available is unnecessarily vague, difficult to navigate, or filled with civic sins of omission, I will speak up. If you don’t appreciate that, so be it. But I will not be deterred.

If you are truly interested in the “facts” getting out to the public, your organization, the Shelby County Election Commission will have to choose to do more than the bare minimum.

As it stands, the average citizen has no chance of knowing what in the world is going on at the Election Commission unless they have also looked at the TN Secretary of State’s election page or dared to delve into the TCA, which is more than unwieldy.

The information the Election Commission puts on its website is consistently out of date, and difficult to navigate.

This wasn’t always the case.

Once upon a time I even praised the Commission for updating its website. Unfortunately, those strides have not been maintained.

I’ve written more than one blueprint to correct some of the problems of information dissemination at the Election Commission. I even served on an election reform board with Commissioners Stamson and Lester…that included much of this blueprint in its final recommendations.

This is something I care deeply about…not a political football to be flung around when its convenient.

So let’s make a deal rather than fling invective at each other in a truly pointless fashion.

I know the Commission is short on staff, so let me take this opportunity to offer my services to make the Election Commission website more navigable, on a volunteer basis (20 hours to start).

I have 20 years of experience with web development, publishing platforms, and audio and video editing/streaming. I feel confident that I can come up with a plan and present it to the Commission for your approval, to make the site more navigable under the current content management structure and a strategy to help keep content up to date.

It seems clear that the Commission doesn’t have the resources to do this, so let me help. Maybe I’ll get some additional perspective on the challenges facing the Commission…which could work to the organization’s benefit.

If you really want me to be involved in distributing “facts”, let me help the Election Commission do that which you apparently are unable to do yourself.

I would be happy, and honored to serve.


Steve Ross

P.S. If you would like to contact me about this offer, please go here and fill out the form. That goes straight to my email. I don’t publish my email address, or anyone else’s for security purposes.

Full Text of the open letter from
Shelby County Election Commissioner Dee Nollner

Mr. Ross, your blog regarding the Jones-Milton election brings to mind that old saying “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing”. Misinformation harms everyone and deprives the public of facts they need to make an intelligent decision.
1. The SCEC has two attorneys, Monice Hagler (D) and John Ryder (R) they concurred regarding the TCA law applicable to this situation — TN State Party Primary Board is the authority for a primary challenge.
2. Clearly no challenge can be made until a decision has been made – two separate auditors (an R and a D) verify every item before submitting the audit for certification.
3. After they have audited the information it will be available for review.
4. Absentee ballots are not mixed with Election Day voting.
5. Well chronicled is defined by the chronicler!
6. At the conclusion of precinct voting, a tabulation is run for all the machines in that precinct – 3 identical copies are printed, one copy is posted on the wall of that precinct and the other two copies are packed separately and delivered to the SCEC that evening for auditing purposes.
7. Approx. 1,400 of your friends and neighbors answer the call to be election workers so the other 531,600 registered voters have the privilege of voting. Some of your friends and neighbors are more capable than others. Election workers are assisted by the 14-member staff. Our temp workers do a remarkable job and we are grateful they are willing to work the 13+hour Election Day. Understandably, some make mistakes but our system is set up to identify and address those errors in an orderly manner through audit.
8. I assure you that the SCEC goes by the law. Will you please help convey facts? I am happy to try to answer questions anytime.

Dee Nollner

Click here to return to my responses.

May 05 2014

Some notes on Early Voting numbers

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

Vote Where?

Vote Early?

Early voting is over and the numbers are in. The newspapers (here, here, and here) reporting that Early Voting turnout is a dismal 15% less than in 2010. The question they never even approach is why?

Days before the first day of Early Voting at Satellite locations, Democratic Candidates Henri Brooks and Deidre Malone charged the Election Commission with voter suppression for reducing the number of days satellite locations were open as compared to the May 2010 County Primary.

The Election Commission says they reduced the number to reduce the cost of the election…and that the additional days of early voting at Satellite locations could be absorbed by the downtown location.

One of the issues brought up at the presser with Brooks and Malone was that the downtown location wasn’t centralized enough or accessible to adequately cover the difference in the number of days Satellite locations were available…something the Election Commission seemed willing to look into for future elections.

So there are really two questions here:
1. Did the downtown location absorb a significant amount of the early voting traffic?
2. Did the absence of Early Voting days at Satellite locations suppress the vote?

To find that out, we have to get into the numbers.

May 2010 vs. May 2014

Early voting at Satellite locations in the May 2010 election began on Monday, April 19th. Satellite location this year opened on Friday, April 25th. That means there were four fewer days for satellite locations this year than in 2010.

This year, there were 4707 fewer people that participated in early voting. Here’s the breakdown by location types.



Diff +/-

Assisted Living


Average Voters per day


First, let’s answer our two questions:
1. Did the downtown location absorb a significant amount of the early voting traffic? Not Even Close

The downtown location underperformed versus 2010 big time because for four MORE days it was the only game in town. For those four more days it brought in less than 25 more people per day. That’s hardly absorbing anything of consequence.

2. Did the absence of Early Voting days at Satellite locations suppress the vote?

Before I go there, let’s take a look at some data.

Looking at the table below, it seems pretty clear that the final days of early voting in 2014 were more brisk than in 2010. This is most likely due to the fewer number of days.

But by the end of Early Voting, an 8100 vote gap was narrowed to just under 4700 votes.

Cumulative Satellite votes per day. 2010 vs. 2014

Diff +/-

Early Voting Statistics Click to embiggen

Early Voting Statistics
Click to embiggen

Its interesting to me that the difference between the number of people that voted early in 2010 and 2014 is almost exactly the same number as the difference between satellite location participation in those two elections. At first glance, it would seem the vote was suppressed by that number of votes.

The fact is, with 40% fewer voting hours at satellite locations, satellite voting was only 16.7% less. On an hourly basis, there were actually about 70 MORE voters per hour in 2014 than in 2010.

Had the full 81 hours been given at that pace the final satellite tally could have been about 5700 MORE voters in early voting, which means we would have outpaced 2010 by about 1000 voters.

So its a bit disingenuous to say Early Voting is down 15% without noting the number of hours satellite locations were open is also down 40%.

All told, early voting performance for any May election was pretty good. Was it good enough to warrant 10 days of satellite locations? Probably not.

The August 2010 election brought over 90,000 early voters. That election absolutely needed to have 10 days of satellite locations.

Suppressive or not?

Back to our second question. Was the decision to limit satellite locations to 6 days inherently suppressive? It certainly didn’t help early voting turnout, but lets not pretend that people were flocking to the polls on any day other than the last day of Early Voting.

That said, if Tuesday night rolls around and the vote total is close to or greater than 2010 (they’re projecting about a 10% decline from 2010), it’ll be pretty clear that the Election Commission’s projections on this were efficient from a financial standpoint, but off the mark from a “serving the public” standpoint.

Six days is probably too few, and ten days is probably too many.

There are lots of things the Election Commission can look at, including underperforming early voting locations to get the right mix of May early voting locations. For instance, one location only saw 333 votes cast in 6 days which is low by any measure.

But since this election really only happens once every four years, its a crap shoot. Hopefully for August they’ll take the savings from this election, and make early voting more accessible to voters.

Of course, you’d never know what they’re planning since the Election Commissions Minutes and Agendas page is 4 to 6 months behind. (sheesh, seriously people?)

I’ll take a deeper look into the final election results on Wednesday and Thursday.

Stay tuned.

Oct 15 2013

Precinct Consolidation Round 2

Posted by Steve Ross in elections

Map of precincts to be consolidated. Red precincts fold into blue.

Map of precincts to be consolidated. Red precincts fold into blue.

It was last June…the last time the specter of precinct consolidation reared it’s ugly head.

At that time I linked to a lot of things…including the intention to cut the number of precincts to 150 from 236.

Last year’s precinct consolidation meant many voters didn’t get cards with their new location until the day of the election. It can’t have helped that the decision was made just a month before early voting was to begin…or that the body was so far behind on their redistricting procedure they fouled up the August state primary…leading to threats from the State Election Commission, a rebuke from the state Comptroller for shoddy management, two overturned elections, a further fouled up November election, and yet another rebuke…this time from the County.

Quite a resume, no?

So its probably easy to understand why someone might look at the current move with a skeptical eye.

Election Commission Meeting

The Election Commission is reportedly meeting tomorrow, Wednesday, October 15th at the Election Operations Center at 980 Nixon. I have no idea what’s on the agenda because it doesn’t appear on the website, nor does a meeting notice. Normal time for meetings is 4:30, but I recommend you call ahead…just to be sure. The number is 222-1200.

As you can see, transparency is highly valued at the Election Commission…even the minutes are months behind.

But according to sources this list of precinct consolidations will be up for discussion.

The 58,000 voters in the precincts that would be shut down, are 74% Democratic voters. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise considering the partisan breakdown of the Election Commission, and the general partisan leanings of the county (which is at least 70% Democratic in November elections).

But the partisan leanings of the precincts, isn’t really the issue…its the disclosure to the voters.

There hasn’t been any…again.

If you’re concerned about these, or any other actions of the Election Commission, I recommend you go to one of their meetings. Maybe even ask a question or two. Public meetings aren’t sexy, but they are where things get done. If you don’t like what’s happened and what’s happening, you owe it to yourself to go. Nothing happens for people who don’t show up.

Here’s the information again.

Election Operations Center
980 Nixon
Wednesday, October 14th, 4:30PM.

The meeting is open to the public.

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