The U.S. Justice Department, the FBI and the State of Tennessee have monitoring duty for the Aug. 2 election following revelations of a problem with voting tabulation by the Shelby County Election Commission.
Secretary of State Tre Hargrett called the commission on the carpet after it was discovered that an inordinate number of citizens had been given improper information about their voting status during the early voting period from July 13 to July 28.
Noting that the problems date back "more than a decade," Hargrett – in a conference call with media – said that "unacceptable is probably not a strong enough statement, frankly," to describe the commission's history of election snafus.
"Nearly every election cycle in recent memory has been plagued by a myriad of errors and complaints of wrongdoing."
Election Commissioner Norma Lester, who serves as secretary, said the commission was summoning every level of energy to get the election right.
"Everyone, the commissioners and the staff, are working around the clock to make things as smooth and accurate as possible. It's a major undertaking, and when you identify and fix one problem, another glitch arises, but the staff have made some major, major inroads in identifying and addressing issues," said Lester.
"We have the checks and balances in place wherever we are able, just trying to do the best we can do to try and make sure we have as fluid an election as we possibly can."
The state dispatched two assistants to help the Election Commission.
Wariness about the election also includes uneasiness about the state's new voter ID law. Hargrett's office has determined that only state-issued photo IDs will be accepted as valid identification for those seeking to vote. And Mayor AC Wharton Jr.'s move to have library photo cards as identification was struck down in court.
"This (problems with elections) goes all the way back to 1974 when Harold Ford Sr. was first elected," said Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Van Turner.
"Bring it up to 1991 when there were issues when Mayor Herenton was elected and up to the present, this is not a new issue to Memphis and Shelby County."
The continuation of problems, said Turner, "Has caught the eye of voters of suburban voters, so it's drawn more attention than it has in recent years. I think there is just a different tenor in what's happening now. There are just as many, if not more, Republicans upset now about the issue than Democrats.
"In past years when suits were launched challenging election administration, the position was usually taken that it was just a case of sour grapes," said Turner. "But now there is widespread displeasure with the process because the (county school) referendums were not on many of the ballots."
Rep. Mike Kernell brought the latest snafu to light after one of his campaign volunteers, Jim Holt, told him that he received incorrect information when he and his wife were not allowed to vote because they were not listed as living in District 93. Following redistricting by the Republican-dominated Tennessee General Assembly, Kernell wound up running against fellow Democrat G. A. Hardaway to represent District 93.
"I went to the poll worker and they didn't take my complaint seriously," said Holt. "I knew we had a map of the district there (at Kernell's headquarters) so I borrowed it and went and showed the poll worker where I lived. She got her supervisor, who said there was nothing she could do about it."
An 11th grade English teacher at Kirby High School, Holt said the summer break afforded him the luxury of pursuing the matter.
"The Election Commission has got to be made more responsive. This was on the first day of voting, but even later that week, two other voters in the district had the same problem and we had to call multiple of times to get any type of response," said Holt.
"They keep trying to blame it on the county commission's redistricting, but that makes no sense since the county districts are not on this ballot. They need to quit waiting until the last minute to do everything. All they have to do is provide paper ballots for people who may not be listed properly."
Kernell took the matter to the state, drawing upon a study by a supporter, Dr. Joseph A. Weinberg, who found that more than 2,000 voters may have been given the wrong information when they went to cast their ballot. He cited an early-voting error rate hovering above 5 percent.
"Which is utterly ridiculous," said Weinberg. "That means about 3200 people got the wrong ballots. We only looked at three races and to have an error rate that high is unbelievable. It's like people have been displaced. I study this all the time and I am not aware of it occurring anywhere else in the state.
"The new voting machines are vulnerable enough to hacking and other attacks, and if they can't even get the data entry part right, I just don't know what will happen," Weinberg said. "I don't think any of them are dishonest, maybe they're just not capable of getting the election done right."
AT A GLANCE
• State Division of Elections – 877-850-4959.
• FBI Voter Hotline – 901-747-4300.
• Official election information – www.GoVoteTN.com.
• Shelby County Election Commission – http://www.shelbyvote.com/; 901-222-1200.