Sumner County Commission ado over voting machine storage could violate Homeland Security rules

By: - February 13, 2023 6:00 am
Voters casting ballots in Tennessee on Nov. 8, 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Voters casting ballots in Tennessee on Nov. 8, 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In a matter of weeks, 275 brand new voting machines will be rolling off an assembly line and delivered to Sumner County, where there is no secure space to store them.

Without a secure facility, the county risks being in violation of Department of Homeland Security election security rules.

A stalemate between the Sumner County Election Commission and members of the Sumner County Commission over building space and budgets has stymied a plan approved by the previous county mayor to place the machines in a county-owned facility that can accommodate the restricted access and video monitoring required by law.

It’s a dispute that is expected to come to a head on Tuesday, when the Sumner County Election Commission will consider legal action against the county, said Lori Atchley, Sumner County’s Administrator of Elections.

“I hate to even mention going down the judiciary route, but I have no choice,” said Atchley, a Republican who has held the job since 2011. “They can’t be stuck in some warehouse.”

“The bottom line is I have to have a secure location when these machines arrive,” she said. “I’m out of time.”

The Sumner County Commission risks a lawsuit filed by the Sumner county Election Commission and violation of Department of Homeland Security rules over failure to approve a security storage facility for new voting machines.

The machines were ordered last year to comply with state law requiring audit-capable election hardware by the 2024 elections — with added numbers of machines to accommodate the county’s growing population.

Former County Mayor Anthony Holt last year approved the use of a little-used building that had previously been leased to the state and could accommodate hundreds of 54-pound machines, which are twice as big and twice the weight as the county’s now defunct voting hardware. County elections officials have used the space for training for more than a year.

But, since that arrangement was made, a local election in August has ushered in a new administration, and a new slate of members on the county’s all-Republican commission — many whom have no prior public office experience and campaigned on their commitment to transform business-as-usual in the longtime GOP-led county; 14 of 17 commissioners newly elected in the August 2022 local election were endorsed by the Sumner County Constitutional Republicans, whose biblically-based platform includes establishing a Christian foundation for governance and limiting development.

The group has been the force behind a series of recent county controversies, including removing books from school libraries, inserting the words, “Judeo-Christian” into a guiding document for the County Commission’s work and a proposal to give away public lands, including a historic log cabin on the National Register of Historic Places, to a private group. A Nashville judge halted any action on the monument until the Tennessee Historical Commission, which has sole authority over transferring ownership of the state’s public memorials, weighs in. 

Two weeks ago the county’s Finance Director David Lawing eliminated approximately $135,000 in the budget for the cost of the move and retrofitting the building to provide secure space for the rooms. Atchley contests his authority to make the decision, saying building usage decisions appropriately belong to the mayor.

Lawing did not return a message  seeking more information left with his office Friday.

Then at last Monday’s County Commission General Operations Committee, where the current Sumner County Mayor John Isbell sought to formalize approval for the election commissions use of the building for the new machines, and their offices, commission members pushed back at the mayor, saying the agenda item caught them by surprise.

Election Commissioner Lori Atchley told commissioners the county cannot simply refuse delivery of voting machines, as Commissioner Merrill Hyde suggestion: Sumner County would be subject to a lawsuit from the manufacturer.

“This isn’t the first time you’ve seen these items,” Isbell said.  There is no other suitable building available, he said. The election commission has used parts of the building since 2021, the machines were ordered last year and are soon arriving, and the county must ready appropriate surveillance equipment before they come. “We’re just trying to get this formalized.” 

Five of the commissioners expressed reservations, saying they lacked the information to make an immediate decision. 

“There’s too much here to discuss tonight,” said Merrol Hyde, the committee’s chair, and one of several commissioners who said they were not ready to make a decision without seeing more details.

Hyde floated the idea of the county simply refusing to take the machines upon delivery.

“What happens if the secure location that’s required is not ready, then I would think they would be liable for sending them to a place that’s not secure,” he asked Atchley.

The county is under contract to take the machines, bears liability for them and would likely be subject to a lawsuit from the manufacturer for not taking delivery, Atchley told the commissioners. 

The Committee then voted unanimously to postpone a decision until they received more information; there is no scheduled meeting posted and the committee is not expected to meet again until March. 

Neither the mayor nor David Klein, chair of the committee, responded to a request for comment.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.