Shelby County Commissioners at a March meeting. (© Karen Pulfer Focht)
Shelby County commissioners voted Monday to spend $5.8 million on voting machines for the November elections as tempers flared and in spite of an ongoing lawsuit pitting county officials against one another.
The Shelby County Commission and the Shelby County Election Commission are currently embroiled in litigation to decide which body has jurisdiction over deciding on new voting machines to replace the county’s decades-old system.
While the election commission wants to purchase ballot-marking machines, county commissioners sought to open up bids for companies to provide hand-marked paper ballots, which they say the public requested.
The public requests for hand-marked ballots stems from the discredited claim that widespread fraud played a part in the 2020 presidential elections, with critics claiming that ballot-marking voting machines were hackable.
With the requests came threats, said several commissioners.
“The inappropriate phone calls and the threats coming to me are unacceptable,” said Chairman Willie Brooks.
“We don’t make enough money for you to threaten our lives,” said Commissioner Tami Sawyer. “Just yesterday, I shared that someone told me on my public Facebook page that they wish I had died instead of my mother.”
Shelby County government is failing to deliver on some of the basic functions and responsibilities that we have. . . Now we have a problem with our government suing itself and potentially not being able to conduct an election. This is inexcusable.
– Shelby County Commissioner Mick Wright
Election commissioners have expressed reluctance to transition to hand-marked ballots since more staff would need to be hired, along with additional storage and eventual shredding of all the ballots. Tennessee’s early voting laws do better under a hybrid voting system, and hand-marked paper ballots usually do better in smaller jurisdictions, said Election Administrator Linda Phillips.
Monday’s vote on a resolution was supposed to bring both groups into a compromise – and possibly end the legal wrangling – by allowing voters to choose whether they wanted to use ballot-marking devices or marking ballots by hand using a hybrid system.
But after four hours of amendments and objections, county commissioners amended the original resolution to apply to the November elections instead of the August elections, despite a lingering threat that the lawsuit could continue.
According to Phillips, the current voting machines run on three servers, two of which are nonfunctional. The remaining server has nearly failed before and Phillips said she fears that the server is “gonna go at any moment” during the upcoming August election.
“Shelby County government is failing to deliver on some of the basic functions and responsibilities that we have. We’re having problems getting license plates to drivers, we have had problems getting (COVID-19) vaccines into arms, we have a problem teaching students how to read, we have a problem with the integrity of our county border, putting a serving commissioner in jeopardy, and now we have a problem with our government suing itself and potentially not being able to conduct an election,” said Commissioner Mick Wright. “This is inexcusable.”
Another election commissioner said that she had not been told that the county’s election equipment could break down.
“That was quite frankly news to me,” said Election Commissioner Vanecia Kimbrow.
“I’m very disturbed that I have to learn of such critical information after attending several meetings to know that we are without a means forward, and that’s not what I understood that case to be,” she added. “Our elections that just happened were executed flawlessly by the administrators and the staff and all our volunteers.”
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