Friday, the Shelby County Democratic Party and the Memphis NAACP filed separate lawsuits against the Shelby County Election Commission. Both lawsuits center on the locations and timing of the first early voting sites in the upcoming August 2018 election.
There are a lot of questions that the Election Commission needs to answer. Certainly, they need to justify the decision to deviate from a long-held early voting norm that I mentioned here. But they’ll have the opportunity to do that in court next week.
There are also serious questions about the Commission’s decision-making process regarding new locations and location availability. Those immediate questions center around the decision to exclude a huge portion of the County for the first four days of Early Voting. In addition, the Commission needs to justify the addition of some locations just minutes away from existing locations.
Finally, there’s the Election Commission’s longstanding contentious relationship with public disclosure. This is another question one of the lawsuits seeks to correct.
That’s a lot of ground to cover. First we need to know who is getting a head start at voting, and who isn’t.
Population vs. Density
One of the main problems with the Election Commission’s selection of the first three Early Voting sites, is that none of them are inside the 240 loop.
Some of the most densely populated areas of the County are more than five miles away from any of the first three early voting locations.
Elections Administrator Linda Phillips justifies this by citing population migration to the east. Outmigration has been an issue for decades. So which precincts in the County have the highest voter population?
Looking at the map above, there’s no question it’s “greener” toward the east. But population is only one factor. Density…the number of potential voters per square mile, is another factor.
Why? Because smaller geographic areas may have fewer voters. But they may also have more voters packed into that smaller area.
Precincts in Lakeland, Arlington, and “Morning Sun” (just west of Eads) have a lot of voters. More than 5000 each. But they’re also HUGE areas which makes them less dense.
The four most densely populated precincts in the County are in Midtown and Downtown. The precincts around them are also on the upper end of the density scale.
There’s no question there’s a good bit of density out east. However, that density is less concentrated than it is inside the 240 loop.
Density isn’t the specific basis of either of the lawsuits. However, density is something to consider if you’re trying to get the most bang for your buck.
What is a factor of both lawsuits is the huge number of voters who are nowhere near an early voting location for the first four days of early voting. That number is as large as it is because of voter density.
How many voters are left out of the first three Early Voting locations?
That’s not an easy question to answer. There are a lot of factors. Honestly, more factors than I have time to consider.
I chose to focus on the most dense areas that are far from first three Early Voting sites. This gives me an idea of how many voters inside the City Core are left out of the process.
Before I go on, you might be asking yourself, “Why is he focused on this five mile radius?”
That’s a good question. Here are a couple reasons:
- Shelby County is about 25 miles wide (east to west) and 27 miles tall (north to south). A five mile radius is 10 miles wide in every direction. So with four to five well placed locations, you could serve the vast majority of voters countywide.
- Five miles is the outer limit of a reasonable distance to expect people to travel regardless of their mode of transportation. Assuming you’ve selected locations that are dense, walkable, and/or close to public transportation, you wouldn’t necessarily lose an entire day trying to get there and back (unless you’re walking the entire distance).
Are You Being Served?
How many people are being served by the locations selected by the Election Commission?
Just looking at the image above, its easy to see that the majority of Shelby County is more than five miles away from any of the three locations on the board. But depending on how strictly you adhere to the 5 mile radius, anywhere between 46% and 53% and of voters are within those boundaries.
Part of the reason this number is so low is because the location in Whitehaven is far enough south that 20% of its area is in Mississippi. Mississippi residents can’t vote in State or County elections (though I’m sure there are quite a few Shelby County voters down there).
But another reason is the overlap between the Election Commission location on Nixon & New Bethel location in Germantown. These locations create a “double count” situation. Overlapping precincts MUST be excluded from one area to get a real count of voters served. Over 25,000 voters are within the five mile radius from the two locations. That means they have more voting options than any other Shelby County voters for the first four days. Those precincts are also overwhelmingly white.
Left Behind: The City Core
So lets get back to the question of the city core, and the tens of thousands of voters who, for fairly arbitrary reasons, have to wait an extra four days to vote. This is a a question both lawsuits seek a remedy for. How many people is that really?
If we use the five mile radius as a standard, the regular early voting location that captures the most voters while being convenient to several transportation options and near the greatest density is Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in the Crosstown area.
The addition of this location would give the nearly 84,000 voters in Downtown, Midtown and North Memphis for the first four days of Early voting. This location that is convenient to public transportation and centrally located.
Of those 84,000 voters, 58,000 are African-American, helping resolve the clear imbalance created by the doubling up of voting opportunity for white voters in the crossover area out east.
What’s more, it increases the number of people who have a convenient location to nearly 60%, which is still not a “passing” grade, but not abject failure either.
Of course, the Election Commission could just solve all of this by opening all the locations on July 13th. They say there’s no time…and since they spent the past week sitting on their hands there might not be. Of course, all of this was easily avoidable if they’d just been as above board as they claim they were.
Looking at these map and these numbers, I’m still not clear on the faulty logic that is the basis for the Election Commission’s decision. It all seems rushed, or at least not fully considered unless the decision was solely to give voters in East Shelby County a head start. Then it makes perfect sense.
And that’s why these two lawsuits are important. As Shelby County voters, we deserve and should expect public officials to give a reasonable rationale for their actions.
Voters should have the same opportunity to vote without experiencing fewer or less favorable options.
Most of all, we shouldn’t suffer the consequences of a hackneyed defense of indefensible actions taken outside the public view.
See you in court!