Shelby County Commission shoots down ballot-marking machines

Election commission threatens suit

By: - July 28, 2021 4:07 pm
Shelby County Commission

Shelby County Commission (Photo: Shelbycountyyn.gov)

On Monday, Shelby County Commission members voted 8-2 against a resolution to purchase Election System & Software ballot-marking devices and software, citing concerns that the voting machines were vulnerable.

Since the 2020 election, the commission has been in debate with the Shelby County Election Commission on how to create confidence in election results. Shelby County commissioners cited an Arizona audit led by Republican state senators who were  inspired by discredited claims that widespread voter frsaaud took the presidency from Donald Trump.  President Joe Biden won Arizona by 10,457 voters, leading some elected officials to ask how states can create irrefutable election results and avoid future allegations. 

For the 2020 state and federal elections, the Shelby County commission approved the temporary use of hybrid machines that allowed voters to choose between hand-marked ballots and digital technology. 

Initially, the election commission favored hybrid devices before settling on ES&S devices, the nation’s largest manufacturer of voting technology. The company currently faces lawsuits due to allegations of errors leading to erroneous election results but inquiries found minimal evidence of voter fraud during the 2020 election.

This week, the commission made a bipartisan decision to shoot down the election commission’s recommendation to use ballot-marking devices despite the election commission’s threatening to sue. 

“I think that it’s unfortunate that this will end up in court rather than us finding a solution,” said Commissioner Mark Wright. 

Commissioners Edmund Ford Jr. and Brandon Morrison voted in favor of the resolution supporting ballot-marking devices. 

Commissioners then voted on an add-on resolution requesting the Shelby County Purchasing Office’s assistance in buying voting machines, effectively bypassing the election commission.

The reason the Democrats do not want ballot-marking devices is so that they can sue their way to victory because no election in Shelby County will be clear and concise without a ballot-marking device.

– Brent Taylor, chair, Shelby County Election Commission

The decision to favor hand-marked ballots over using digital technology will have consequences, said Brent Taylor, chairman of the election commission. 

Hand-marked ballots have not been used in Shelby County for more than 60 years, said Taylor, and will require additional efforts along with unknown additional costs to match unvoted, hand-marked paper ballots to the number of people who voted, leaving room for human error. Taylor added that paper ballots will make voting harder for non-English speakers and citizens with disabilities since Tennessee only requires ballots be printed in English.  

“The reason the Democrats do not want ballot-marking devices is so that they can sue their way to victory because no election in Shelby County will be clear and concise without a ballot-marking device,” said Taylor, a Republican, adding that Davidson County used ballot-marking devices. 

Republican commissioners Amber Mills, David Bradford, and Mark Billingsley also voted against the resolution, which​ Taylor believes will affect their election results in next year’s elections. 

Information provided by Think Tennessee, a nonpartisan think tank, shows paper ballots leave a trail and are considered best practice for election security.  

Tennessee is one of only a handful of states that uses direct-recording electronic (DRE)  machines, or devices that record a vote directly into the computer memory without using paper ballots, although there is no state law promoting a uniform election system. 

Shelby County currently uses 16-year-old DRE machines, prompting the need for the county to update their systems. And while digital records were thought to be effective, voting-rights advocates said there’s an increasing need for paper trails as an extra step to verify results. 

Hand-marked ballots are not without disadvantages. Ballots need to be pre-printed, which results in counties each using different styles, and given Tennessee’s low voter turnout, counties could potentially trash hundreds of empty ballots.

Tennessee voter turnout increased significantly during the November 2020 elections largely due to absentee ballots and early voting. According to Think Tennessee, a bipartisan voting-rights organization, more than 230,000 voted by mail, an absentee voter turnout increase of 212.5%.

Tennessee collected data from the 2020 elections and conducted surveys from Feb. 24 to March 5, 2021 to learn about making Tennessee’s elections more secure and convenient for voters.  In general,Tennessee’s election system during the 2020 elections worked as election officials adapted to pandemic-related changes, but there was room for improvement. Reports showed that callers complained about the voter-registration window and missing deadlines for restoring their voter status. While absentee ballots were popular, callers reported having issues with returned ballots and needing more information about how to successfully participate in elections. 

Tennessee did not dispute 2020 election results, but Tennesseans who called a hotline operated by the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law reported having little confidence in strictly-digital voting devices. Because of this, Think Tennessee recommends counties look into election devices that use a combination of ballot-marking machines and hand-marked ballots.

Adding a double level of confidence and confirmation is key, said Dawn Schluckebier, Think Tennessee’s project manager.

“Both options that Shelby County is considering are going to provide that sense,” she said. “Paper trails, however produced, are considered an election security best practice.”

Upcoming elections in Shelby County include county primary elections, although Monday’s decision may not affect those. 

Both Republicans and Democrats voted against purchasing the ballot-marking devices, showing that both sides of the political spectrum are concerned about secure elections.

“I want to encourage our commissioners to create a safe process and if there’s concerns about the machinery, we need to have conversations about this because there’s an important election coming up,” said Rep. London Lamar, D-Memphis.  “We need to ensure that next year’s election process is transparent.”

Taylor intends to meet with election commission officials to discuss their options after the council’s decision to reject their approval of  ballot-marking devices but said they “remain committed to working with the council to resolve this in the spirit of compromise, even now.”

 

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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.

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