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New Election Commission on a mission

This week the New Tri-State Defender met with attorney Robert Meyers, Shelby County Election Commission chairman, and newly appointed Election Commissioner Norma Lester.  This week the New Tri-State Defender’s President and Publisher, Bernal E. Smith II, and Executive Editor Karanja A. Ajanaku met with attorney Robert Meyers, Shelby County Election Commission chairman, and newly appointed Election Commissioner Norma Lester. Commissioner Lester initiated a discussion last week that led to the meeting, which both Commissioners said represents the beginning of a new approach to community engagement and the carrying out of the roles and responsibilities of the commission.  

The discussion lasted over an hour and contained insightful and revealing details about past issues and implications for future elections and implementation of state laws. We posed questions on issues ranging from voter disenfranchisement and confidence to potential electronic fraud with the current voting machines.

Here is Part I of the dialogue, which will be continued next week.

Only the messenger

Bernal E. Smith II: Are there any initial comments or thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?

Robert Meyers:  We appreciate the opportunity to sit and dialogue with you.  We’ve been reaching out to all of the media outlets and certainly wanted to include the Tri-State Defender as you are a valuable resource in that you have reach with the public and serve as a vendor by which we meet statutorily mandated communication with the public.  More importantly, we want to find out what more can we be doing to enhance the public’s understanding of what we do. One of the most important things to understand is that we don’t make or enact laws but simply serve as a body to carry out the laws that are created by the legislators to govern elections in the most fair, unbiased and orderly manner.

B.E. Smith: So it’s fair to say that you don’t create the message but are the messenger.  

R. Meyers: Right, it’s our primary role to take the law of the land as determined by the Tennessee General Assembly and carry it out.  

August 2010 Election

B.E. Smith: Well, with that as a starting point, by both experience and in listening to the voting public there still exists a measure of distrust for the systems and processes put in place by the election commission, if not for the commission itself. It primarily manifested itself during the August 2010 election, where a still undetermined number of voters, including myself, were told that they had already voted during early voting, resulting in some not voting and others like me casting a provisional ballot and not sure whether their vote would count or not.  Obviously, this was an unacceptable situation and has created distrust, disenfranchisement and a level of voter apathy that breeds low voter turnout in critical elections. What is your view of this situation?

R. Meyers: This is a personal concern for me. The August election certainly damaged our reputation. And once you’ve had that reputation damaged you have to repair it and reestablish. It’s not enough to say that we’re better or we’re going do better or we’ve done things to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We truly have to reestablish trust by holding mistake free elections and demonstrating to the public that we are committed to and can get it right each and every time. Anything except being mistake free is unacceptable.  

We’re a unique organization in that we can’t afford to have a mistake. In the newspaper business if you make a mistake you can always come back and print a correction. We simply don’t have any margin for error. This commission is doing everything that we can to reestablish our credibility and the confident of all voters.

Karanja A. Ajanaku: Are you acknowledging that mistakes were made?

R. Meyers:  Yes, it is undisputable that a mistake, in fact, was made when data was loaded on to the electronic poll book in the August election. That mistake created confusion and led to the issues that we have been discussing. It was regrettable. However, Commissioner Johnson and I did an internal investigation to determine what happened and it simply boiled down to a simple human error.  

A very valued employee in the heat of the moment made a mistake. He literally did not type in a digit he needed in order to select the correct database and there was no checks and balances in place to ensure no errors on his part. So there were two mistakes, his human error and the fact that our system didn’t have any checks and balance to account for the possibility of a mistake. We believe we’ve fixed it and a mistake like that won’t happen again.

Provisional ballots

B. Smith: In my situation, as with many others, even when allowed to cast a provisional ballot, there was little confidence that the vote would actually be counted. Can you explain the process of how provisional ballots are handled?

R. Meyers:  Those are the kinds of things that we have to overcome and it may be complicated by the implementation of the new voter id law in 2012 and we’ll need your help with educating the public prior to that time. We count all provisional ballots as long as they meet the requirements according to state law. Occasionally someone votes who isn’t a registered voter and that vote can’t be counted.  However, I do understand people’s mistrust with provisional ballots versus casting their vote directly on the machine.  

The next portion of the discussion was led by the executive editor with responses primarily from Commissioner Lester and pertained primarily to the new state law requiring all registered voters to have a picture id when voting. That issue is the subject a story and commentary on Page 1.

Communication with the Community

B. Smith: What is the communication plan of this new Election Commission and how will you create the sort of transparency that is necessary to establish trust on an ongoing basis as we move towards critical elections this year and in 2012?

R. Meyers: The first part of the plan is doing what were doing here today which is reaching out to local media outlets, journalist and influencers in the community to meet and get to know you and to get our message out broadly to the community. The second part of that is we are looking for advice. I’ve never been chairman and never really been one to seek or desire a lot of media attention. So I am a neophyte in this position and am seeking out advice and information in ensuring we restore and maintain voter confidence and carryout error free, high integrity elections every time there is an election.

So as things change and new information becomes available we will disseminate information through media outlets and community partners. We will post lots of information on our website, which we’ve built as a tremendous resource for all voters and have made it easy to use and navigate. We also need feedback and input from you, what is it that your readers want to know? We’ll seek that input from you not just now but going forward.

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