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Why every vote doesn’t count

By now you would think that the Memphis and Shelby County Election Commission would be hypersensitive to the need to have an election that did not have a “glitch”.

 Shep Wilbun
 Shep Wilbun

By now you would think that the Memphis and Shelby County Election Commission would be hypersensitive to the need to have an election that did not have a “glitch”.

After two election challenges (court cases) and several highly publicized, self-admitted mistakes in the last six years, you would think that it would be priority No. 1 to hold an election without another such issue. Yet on March 6, we had a problem with the absentee vote counting, again.

There is a growing perception that every election in Shelby County has a problem with either the machines going down or the vote count being stopped or the wrong data being entered. At best, it appears that we are unable to have anything but a flawed election, and, that at worse, something wrong or improper is going on.

Confidence in the outcomes of elections has dwindled to the point where a significant number of citizens, especially in the African-American community, don’t believe that the winner was actually the “real” winner. You hear it all the time in statements such as “they’re going to make who they want to win, win.” And the devastating long-term effect of this situation is increased voter apathy.

For the record, 11.8 percent of the eligible voters in Shelby County took the time to exercise their right to vote in the March 6, 2012 Presidential Primary Election. It was an even more dismal turnout in the African-American community. Of the 23,264 Democratic primary voters approximately 70 percent were African American.  This would represent just 8 percent of the registered voters who are African American by identification. And if you include the portion of “Other voters” who can be presumed to be African American, only slightly more than 5 percent of all eligible African-American voters took the time to vote in this past election.

The excuses are many. President Obama had no opponent in the Democratic Primary for President; there were only two contested local primary races – General Sessions Court Clerk and Assessor; the new photo ID law stopped some; disappointment in the performance of our African-American elected officials stopped others; “I didn’t even know there was an election” and a general lack of concern stopped yet even more from voting.

The reality is that voter participation among African Americans in Memphis and Shelby County has been decreasing over the last ten years. The question is this: Why and what are we going to do to increase it?

From a historical perspective, the largest turnout of African-American voters was the 1991 Mayoral election of Dr. Willie W. Herenton, where around 66 percent of the eligible voters in the city of Memphis participated. Clearly this was a watershed event, with the African-American community viewing that election as a movement and not just an election.

Subsequently, we have had the election of a majority African-American city council, a majority African-American city school board, an African-American county mayor, a near majority on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, 11 members of the Tennessee General Assembly, and continued African-American presence in the city mayor’s office. Yet, in spite of all these political gains and power, a very significant number of African Americans in Memphis view their lives as unaffected by this. They don’t see the correlation between having all these African-American elected officials and improvement in the quality of their lives.

Couple this with the constant negative reporting on African-American elected officials – everything from Tennessee Waltz, to personal problems, to being portrayed as a “racist” if you speak out for African-American causes – and the connection that is so important between elected official and their constituents has been destroyed in the African-American community. What this means is the voter stops trusting the elected official and therefore stops voting.

Even more chilling is the effect that the new Voter ID Law, where a photo ID (driver’s license, passport, or other “approved” identification) is required to vote, has had on the ability to vote. The law will further suppress the vote, whether that was the intention or not. (There is evidence of a national trend to reduce the unprecedented turnout of those who made possible the election of our President in 2008.) Many African Americans cannot (because of travel and costs) comply with this requirement. Even more will show up at polling places unaware of the new requirements and become frustrated when not allowed to vote. They will leave and not come back.

Add to this the unconstitutional (my view) way that voters are purged for not voting. Did you know that if you do not vote in two successive Federal Election cycles, a process will be begun to take you off the voter rolls. If you are then removed from the voter registration list, you must re-register in order to vote. Many in the African-American community move frequently, do not get the mailed notifications and are purged. When many of these would-be voters show up to vote and find that they have been purged, they are angry and give up on voting forever.

Then we must factor for the “questionable elections” where events happen to suddenly change the results and persons get elected that do not appear sensitive to the needs and wants of the African-American community. This is demoralizing.

For those who do take the time to vote, there is no longer a certainty that the elections are fair and that the results are accurate. Even the most committed of voters begin to lose interest under these conditions. So, after a period of time – the last 20 years – and enough questionable election outcomes, the turnout gradually decreases to the point where African-American office seekers have a hard time winning elections even though African-American registered voters are a majority.

We have become fearful of having too many African-American candidates in races such that a split vote would allow a non-African American to win as was the case in the 9th Congressional District in 2006. Ironically, 20 years ago, ensuring that there was only one consensus African-American candidate was the reason for the People’s Convention (which Teddy Withers, Vernon Ash, and I came up with in 1991) that launched Dr. Herenton on his way to becoming the first African American elected mayor of Memphis.

So what can we do?

We must begin to mend the relationship between African-American elected officials and the African-American community. This will be a slow process but can be accomplished by having an African-American Community Agenda to hold all accountable to.

Second, we must challenge those laws that suppress our vote, support the lawsuit of former Congressman Lincoln Davis challenging the state law that purges voters, and work with any effort that seeks to protect our voting rights. (Lincoln Davis is a former middle Tennessee Congressman who went to vote, found that he had been purged and is suing over the process.)

Third, the entire election process here in Shelby County (machines, software, voter registration lists, all databases, procedures, and accessibility to tabulation) needs to be independently reviewed, analyzed, and investigated to determine how well it performs and how to stop the “glitches.”

Fourth, we need to have an immediate, intensive effort to re-register the significant number (by some counts as many as 100,000) of purged voters so that they can participate in August and November.

If we begin to do these things, I believe that voter turnout will begin to increase and that African-American political power will as well. Let’s make every vote count!

(Guest columnist Shep Wilbun is a former member of the Shelby County Election Commission.)


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