You may think, like some local media folks do, that the uproar about Early Voting for the August Shelby County General election was just another example of whining Democrats saying the sky is falling.
You’d be wrong.
There are a lot of good reasons for Democrats to be suspicious of the Election Commission…even under administrator Linda Phillips.
Truth be told, all 3 GOP Election Commissioners who oversaw the August 2012 wrong ballot debacle are still running the show, including the Commission Chair, Robert Meyers. So, a healthy bit of skepticism is still warranted.
So lets go through the problems the Election Commission created for itself this time around, and why those problems led to both the current controversy and continuing suspicions of shenanigans.
Game 1: Reducing the number of location days
By state law, Early Voting in the August election begins on July 13th. One thing state law doesn’t mandate is how many locations are open and for how many days.
That’s where the shenanigans can come in. To be fair, not every change is shenanigans. Different elections have different traditional turnout levels.
Higher traditional turnout elections, like the November general, typically has all early voting locations open throughout the early voting term. 60% of Shelby County voters participated in the November 2016 election with nearly 70% of them voting early.
The August 2016 primary election wasn’t a high turnout affair. There were no Countywide seats up for a vote. Less than 15% of all registered voters turned out in that election. Still, all early voting locations were open for all but two days.
The May 2018 County Primary had exceedingly low turnout. Just 13.76% of voters participated, and that was high for a May primary. The May 2014 County Primary only saw 10.78% participation. This May all early voting locations were open for the entire early voting period.
Finally, just so we have an “apples to apples” comparison: the August 2014 County General election saw about 26% turnout. In that election, the downtown Election Commission site was open the first two days of early voting. The following Monday, all locations opened.
In fact, just about every non-November election has had limited early voting on the first two days of the early voting term (Friday and Saturday). Then, all early voting sites open the following Monday and stay open throughout the early voting term.
That has been the norm since I moved here 14 years ago.
So there should be a good deal of suspicion when the Election Commission arbitrarily cuts an additional two days of early voting from the schedule by offering limited early voting for the first four (4) days early voting.
Game 2: Location, Location, Location
The second complaint centered around the Agricenter. It was the only site originally set to be open the first four (4) days of voting.
I’m not hating on the Agricenter. I know a lot of people who vote there religiously. Honestly, its not a bad location for a large segment of the population. But its a less than ideal location for the majority of the County’s residents.
The Downtown location wasn’t ideal for most County residents either. However, it disenfranchised equally and only for two (2) days.
Under the original plan, the Agricenter location would have kept tens of thousands of voters a 4 hour bus ride away from the only place to vote for the first four (4) days.
I think everyone has a pretty clear picture of the demographics around the Agricenter, but just in case you don’t, here’s what it looks like:
The Agricenter may be in the most racially diverse precinct in East Memphis, but it is surrounded by some of the most white precincts in the entire County.
There are only two majority minority precincts within a 5 mile radius of the location.
Democrats wanted all locations to be open throughout the entire early voting term. That’s not too far outside the norm, since the Election Commission just did that in the super-low turnout May election.
The “compromise” looks like this:
Now, at least, one location will be open in an area that is a majority minority population. One will be open just around the corner from Agricenter. A third will be open in an area that seems to have a good deal of crossover.
Despite that, there’s still a huge swath of Shelby County that’s nowhere near any of the three locations including some areas that have the fewest public transportation options (Raleigh, Frayser, and Millington).
Game 3: Sad to say, but it looks like you got played
There’s no question that there was sufficient cause for alarm. But it appears the compromise approved by the Shelby County Election Commission may have actually done more harm than good.
Some of the highest turnout GOP precincts in the County now have two early voting locations right around the corner from each other. So lets not pretend that this is some kind of victory for Democrats.
The speed with which this compromise arrived leads me to believe that Election Commission Chair Robert Meyers did his homework ahead of time, and Democrats might not have.
Both Downtown and Midtown have viable early voting locations that serve large populations of minority voters (Mississippi Blvd. comes to mind). But for whatever reason, no core city locations were on the table. Mississippi Blvd. is one of the more popular early voting locations that is convenient to many public transportation lines
Adding a downtown location at a County building, which is not unusual, would be a good alternative as well. But Meyers seems to know what he’s doing. Now this compromise will likely give GOP voters a couple days head start.
A 4 day head start may not seem like a big deal. But folks who follow elections and turnout know it is. Early voting operations are about momentum. Getting voting started in a way that geographically leaves out significant portions of the population is stifling to that momentum.
What’s more, folks who work long or odd hours (like myself) don’t have the options 9-5ers do to get to an early voting location. So limiting location choices can also limit the ability for folks to cast their votes. You don’t have to be an election turnout expert to get that.
Make no mistake, Meyers, Nollner and Stampson know what they’re doing. The “innocent” act played out by Commission Chair Robert Meyers is a sickening display of false ignorance.
And while the Shelby County population may be moving east, as noted in this Commercial Appeal report, that’s been happening for decades. Why the change now?
The Election Commission hasn’t given a good reason to shorten the number of days for all locations. The County Commission even says they’ll foot the bill!
Administrator Linda Phillips says there’s a data driven reason for the change. Making that change in a politically charged County Election is either short-sighted, or intentionally tone-deaf.
Choosing not to engage stakeholders ahead of time is a continuing self-inflicted wound for the Election Commission.
They, like so many other small boards in Shelby County, operate like a walled fiefdom suspicious of anyone arriving at the gate. That makes them a prime candidate for skepticism. Honestly, that hasn’t changed in decades.
All that said, there are still 10 days with 27 locations countywide. Once the Shelby County Election Commission fixes their link to those locations, I’ll post a Google Map of all the locations.
Get out and vote folks!
Edited to add: The demographic information above was collected from the most recent voter registration report found here and Census data. Because so many voters do not register race information on their voter file, a combination of registration race information and Census +18 race information was used to arrive at demographic distributions.