Nearly 21% turnout in Shelby County shows most voted early, absentee

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 07, 2020 12:27 AM CT | Published: August 07, 2020 12:05 AM CT

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen did some quick math Thursday night, Aug. 6, as some precincts were still out in his bid for re-election in the 9th District Democratic primary.

“Eight five percent,” he said to a Facebook live audience of supporters between calling out those joining the feed -- former aides, other veteran politicos and even some parents of aides to the Congressman.

Cohen’s campaign track record

“A great win,” he added of his win over his challenger, former Shelby County Democratic Party chairman Corey Strong. “Hard to argue with.”

Cohen goes on to face Republican Charlotte Bergmann in the November general election. Bergmann was unopposed in Thursday’s companion GOP primary.

Cohen’s winning percentage was a middle ground in terms of his margin over past serious contenders after the two most recent primaries in 2018 and 2016 featured only token opposition.

Cohen made no mention of Strong or Bergmann on an election night that reflected the social distancing of the pandemic along with late results compared to much of the rest of the state and then a sudden deluge of numbers.

The 118,501 Shelby County voters who participated in the Democratic and Republican primaries for the U.S. Senate, the best unofficial gauge of countywide turnout, were 20.6% of the county’s 575,157 voters as of the Aug. 1 Election Commission report on registered voters.

The overall turnout indicates most voters, 81,313, voted early or absentee and not on election day.

The countywide race for clerk revealed a lower total turnout of 106,517 voters, reflecting some fall-off among voters who came to the polls primarily for the Senate primaries, with the majority, 76,065, voting in the Democratic primary.

The countywide numbers reflected the unexpected statewide results in both U.S. Senate primaries.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty carried the county over Nashville trauma surgeon Dr. Manny Sethi and 13 other candidates including Memphis Dr. George Flinn in the Republican primary.

The race between Hagerty and Sethi was hard fought with blanket attack ads on television in the last weeks of the primary campaign as polls showed a narrow race between the two. It wasn’t.

Hagerty will face Memphis environmental activist Marquita Bradshaw, who carried the county and the state in a more unexpected outcome.

Bradshaw was at the top of a five-person field in which the favorite, Nashville attorney James Mackler, finished third countywide and statewide.

Bradshaw brings environmental perspective to U.S. Senate race

Mackler was the only Democratic contender who had raised more than $1 million, considered the threshold for mounting a viable statewide campaign.

Mackler thought about running two years ago for the U.S. Senate but bowed out in favor of former Gov. Phil Bredesen who lost to Republican Marsha Blackburn in the November 2018 general election.

Former Memphis City Council member Joe Brown claimed the only countywide position on the August ballot as the Democratic nominee for General Sessions Court Clerk. He defeated Republican nominee and former Probate Court Clerk Paul Boyd.

It was an incumbent’s night on the Shelby County ballot for everyone but District 5 Shelby County Schools board member Scott McCormick.

The former Memphis City Council member lost to challenger Sheleah Harris in a campaign that included a dark money direct mail piece in the closing days of the campaign reminding voters of McCormick’s DUI arrest on charges that were later dismissed

Harris won by 1,300 votes. The other four school board incumbents seeking new four-year terms on the nine-member board were each re-elected. The other four seats on the school board covering Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County are on the ballot in 2022.

Cohen’s mind was on the November presidential general election. 

“Look for Russian interference on the way to November election day in the presidential race,” said the city’s top ranking elected Democrat and one of only two Democratic Congressmen in the state. “We know they are doing that. We believe as Democrats that our intelligence officials should be telling you this.”

“That was a weird race,” Cohen said as he looked over Hagerty’s winning numbers on the Republican side and noted Flinn’s third place finish. “George was the rational candidate and the rational candidate got 3.5% of the vote.”

The votes in Shelby County came late and suddenly on election night, with the early vote count an hour after the polls closed locally and as The Associated Press called the Republican Senate primary for Hagerty. That was followed about an hour later by a separate absentee count.

With that, the combined count with 158 of the 166 election day precincts countywide followed shortly before 10 p.m. and the remaining eight precincts came in close to 11 p.m.

The absentee vote count showed a total of 16,584 ballots cast in the countywide race for General Sessions Court Clerk. It indicates some of the nearly 20,000 absentee ballots issued after being applied for in Shelby County weren’t used or didn’t reach the Election Commission in time to be counted or both.

The deadline to have the ballots at the Election Commission was when the polls closed Thursday and the mail-in ballots could not be hand-delivered by state law.

Fifteen minutes before 5 p.m. Thursday, election officials learned the Bartlett Post Office was taking absentee ballots for delivery to the election commission in time to make the 7 p.m. deadline. But the deadline to get the ballots to the post office was 5 p.m.

During the early voting period, some voters who applied for absentee ballots but didn’t get them and feared they wouldn’t in time to mail them back voted a provisional ballot according to Shelby County elections administrator Linda Phillips.

The provisional ballots will be part of the certified totals to come but aren’t reflected in the election night unofficial totals.


2020 Election voter turnout Steve Cohen

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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