MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Concerns about voter registrations and the security of electronic voting machines are looming over the upcoming election in Tennessee’s largest county.
Two lawsuits have been filed in connection with Tuesday’s pivotal election in Shelby County, the largest by population in Tennessee and the one that includes Memphis. Election officials there have pushed back against allegations of voter suppression and that they are not doing enough to protect the election process.
Tennessee features a race for governor and a tight U.S. Senate race between Republican Marsha Blackburn, who served 16 years in the U.S. House, and Democrat Phil Bredesen, a former Tennessee governor. The Senate race is being closely watched nationally as Democrats try to flip the seat in a state with relatively low voter turnout.
A pair of related political groups, of BlackPAC and Black Progressive Action Coalition, has infused $3.4 million into the Senate race to turn out the black vote in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville. The efforts include direct mail, radio ads, door knocking, and phone calls.
Disputes over voter registrations have emerged in Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee. Late last month, the Tennessee Black Voter Project and the NAACP filed a lawsuit in Shelby County Chancery Court over more than 36,000 registrations delivered to the Shelby County Election Commission. Election officials said about 55 percent were invalid because they were incomplete, were duplicates from previously registered voters or had come from convicted felons.
The black voter project and the NAACP said their representatives witnessed multiple legal violations by elections officials during early voting. NAACP President Derrick Johnson came to Memphis to urge people to vote despite what he called attempts at voter suppression “that should give us all pause.”
Elections Commission administrator Linda Phillips said in a statement it appears the Black Voter Project intentionally withheld completed voter registration forms it had collected until the Oct. 9 deadline to try to “create chaos.” Election Commission spokeswoman Suzanne Thompson said one person registered to vote 22 times.
A chancellor ordered the Election Commission to allow people with incomplete registrations to correct problems and vote on electronic voting machines, not provisional ballots, on Election Day. But the Court of Appeals in Tennessee blocked most of the injunction, ruling that those who fix incomplete applications on Election Day will have to cast provisional ballots.
Alexander Wharton, an attorney for the Black Voter Project, told The Commercial Appeal that he was disappointed in the appeals court ruling. Wharton said his biggest concern is that people are told how to fix registration applications so that they don’t make the same mistake on Election Day, possibly invalidating their provisional ballot.
Bredesen said the Election Commission “needs to clean up its mess and get its act together.” Blackburn said she hopes “everyone who has registered to vote and is entitled to vote will be able to vote.”
Another concern is related to the security of Shelby County’s electronic voting machines. Voting integrity advocates, led by former Memphis City Council member and Democrat attorney Carol Chumney, asked a federal judge to force the Election Commission to perform rigorous security checks on its voting systems, including having the U.S. Department of Homeland Security perform risk and vulnerability assessments.
Election officials and Election Commission lawyer John Ryder, a Republican, say the county has plans in place to ensure fairness and accountability of the voting machines and the voting process.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker declined Chumney’s request for a temporary restraining order ahead of early voting, saying it was not the federal court’s place to tell county officials how to conduct elections.
Chumney also asked the judge to require that the county move to a voting system with paper ballots and a voter-verifiable paper trail for future elections. The machines provided by the county’s current voting system vendor, Election Systems & Software, do not have such a paper trail.
Shelby County’s voting machines were purchased more than a decade ago, making them and the software they use unreliable and vulnerable to manipulation, Chumney said.
Parker has not ruled directly on the voting systems issue. But he did address it in his ruling denying the restraining order.
“Choosing voting systems is a decision mainly reserved for state and local authorities, not the federal courts,” Parker wrote.
Later in the ruling, Parker urged Shelby County voting officials “to continue studying the efficacy of the current voting system and to implement better procedures as they become available.”
Associated Press writer Jonathan Mattise contributed from Nashville.
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