Sumner County Commission approves temporary storage for voting machines

As dispute between commission and election commission grows, one commissioner says it’s time to axe early voting,

By: - February 15, 2023 6:02 am
Casting votes, Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Casting votes, Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Sumner County Commissioners this week approved the use of a temporary basement space to store 275 new voting machines soon to arrive from the manufacturer — part of an effort to avert violating U.S. Department of Homeland Security election rules requiring them to be kept in a secure location.

But the decision may not avert legal action by the Sumner County Election Commission, which voted on Tuesday to seek outside counsel to explore legal options to ensure election commission operations.

The actions this week reflect ongoing tensions between newly elected members of the County Commission and the Sumner County Elections Commission. 

Those tensions were on display during a Monday night meeting, when Commissioners also voted to deny $61,000 to pay part-time election office workers. The election office relies on the workers to perform day-to-day functions and has been operating in the red since December, Sumner County Elections Administrator Lori Atchley told commissioners.

“We’re doing our best to assess the spend of every department, and we’ve got to have an understanding that a requirement for funds is not a blank check,” Commissioner Matt Shoaf responded. “It’s very easy to be fiscally conservative until it’s time to do it.”

The dispute over where to put the incoming voting machines emerged in recent weeks over the decision by former County Mayor Anthony Holt to give the elections commission space in a little-used county building. The building, which has office and warehouse space, was going to be used to store hundreds of 50+ pound voting machines — paid for with state funding and brought in to comply with new state rules requiring audit capabilities. 

Sumner County Commissioners voted Monday to deny $61,000 to pay part-time election office workers, whom the election office relies to perform day-to-day functions. “We’re doing our best to assess the spend of every department, and we’ve got to have an understanding that a requirement for funds is not a blank check,” Commissioner Matt Shoaf said. “It’s very easy to be fiscally conservative until it’s time to do it.”

Election officials have been using the building for over a year for training, to store the outdated election machines and planned to relocate their offices there as well. 

That was before a local election in August ushered in a new county mayor and large turnover on the County Commission; many of the newly-elected commissioners campaigned on the fiscal conservatism platform of the Sumner County Constitutional Republicans.

Two weeks ago, when these commissioners learned of the former mayor’s decision to designate the building for election usage, they questioned Holt’s authority to make the decision. The County Commission had never approved the move. 

It’s unclear whether allocating building space requires any approval of a county commission.

During Monday’s meeting, County Commissioner Mark Harrison noted Tennessee statute outlines “care and custody of all the county property” is among the designated powers and duties of county mayors. 

But Shoaf, the committees chair, also expressed concern about the Commission being kept out of the loop on appropriating funding for the move. 

He noted that the election commission entered into a multi-year deal with Comcast for internet services as treading on the commission’s authority to allocate funding. 

“This body is the funding body, and it is very difficult to approve new funds when I see an organization signing itself up for things that were not approved,” he said. 

“That is not a fair statement,” Atchley said, noting the Comcast bill was paid out of this year’s budget.

Commissioner Jeremy Mansfield said the request for building space, funding and the machines raised larger concerns about county election operations growing out of control.

Mansfield said he’d like to eliminate early voting entirely and has heard from constituents who would prefer to do away with voting machines, too, returning instead to paper ballots.

“It’s everything I’m seeing… with what I’m seeing about storing machines and what a behemoth this is growing into,” he said. “I’m an election-day guy. I don’t like early voting. I’d get rid of it if I could.” 


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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.