Early voting opens with Shelby County’s ‘big ballot’

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 15, 2022 6:33 AM CT | Published: July 15, 2022 4:00 AM CT

The longest ballot in Shelby County politics has arrived.

With the Friday, July 15, opening of early voting at 26 sites across the county, Shelby County voters begin deciding a ballot with 163 races and 344 candidates in the second election of 2022.

Here are the changes voters will be navigating when early voting begins

Among the stakes are:

  • A hard-fought general election race for District Attorney General between Republican incumbent Amy Weirich and Democratic challenger Steve Mulroy. The race has centered on what reforming the criminal justice system looks like in a city that has a chronic problem with violent crime.
  • A competitive challenge of Democratic Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris by Republican Worth Morgan, following Harris’ resounding victory in May over primary challenger Ken Moody.
  • A rematch for Juvenile Court Judge between incumbent Dan Michael and Tarik Sugarmon, with Ray Glasgow and Dee Shawn Peoples joining the race.
  • Eight countywide races for clerks and similar offices that saw three Democratic incumbents fall to challengers in the May Democratic primaries. Democratic County Clerk Wanda Halbert survived in the May election, but in the interim, complaints have grown about how her office has handled the roll out of new license plates and the annual renewal of auto tags. She faces Republican challenger Jeff Jacobs.
  • A Memphis referendum that would extend the term limits of the City Council and mayor from two consecutive terms to three consecutive terms.
  • A statewide Democratic primary for Tennessee governor to decide who will challenge Republican Gov. Bill Lee in the November general election. The race features two Memphis contenders – Memphis City Council member JB Smiley Jr. and North Memphis activist Carnita Atwater, along with Dr. Jason Martin of Nashville.
  • Primaries for all 13 of Shelby County’s seats in the state House and three of the five state Senate seats that cover the county. It’s the first slate of legislative elections since the Shelby delegation to the capitol lost a House seat in the once-a-decade redistricting process.
  • Nonpartisan elections for four of the nine seats on the Memphis- Shelby County School board that come against the backdrop of the board’s suspension of Superintendent Joris Ray as allegations of sexual misconduct with school system employees are investigated.
  • All 13 seats on the Shelby County Commission with a new set of district lines that created a Cordova district and, in the process, created a suburban district that is a blend of East Memphis and Germantown.
  • A daunting set of 70 judicial races with 119 candidates, including 26 state appellate court retention races in which voters choose “retain” or “replace” for a single candidate. A total of 13 judges are running unopposed. Eight of the races are for judicial positions that have no incumbent seeking re-election. The remaining 23 races involve incumbent judges facing challengers.

Those races and others are on a five-page ballot with the judicial races near the bottom and the Memphis referendum at the very bottom of the ballot.

The Daily Memphian’s On The Record podcast features an overview of the ballot and what to expect at early voting.

No voter will have all 163 races on their ballot because some are for district seats. And 52 of the races are one-candidate affairs with no opposition, not counting the 26 judicial retention races.

But the ballot will take longer for voters than the May county primaries.

The length of the ballot is just one factor. Redistricting at the state and county levels has moved some voters into new districts, so there could be some confusion.

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The Election Commission also overhauled the precinct maps and election day polling places within those new precincts for the first time in 20 years.

All of the precincts have new numbers reflecting a change in numbering to a system the rest of the state uses. It replaces a precinct numbering system that dates back to the Crump era of politics in Memphis.

That shouldn’t be much of a factor, if at all, in early voting.

But because of the confusion it could create on election day, when voters have to vote at the polling place in their precinct, election officials and voting rights groups are urging voters to cast early or absentee ballots and avoid possible election day confusion.

Turnout numbers from past “big ballots” elections in this August cycle suggest at least twice as many voters will show up than this past May when total turnout — absentee, early and election day voters — was 11%, or about 62,000 of the county’s 583,000 voters.

Eight years ago, in 2014, this same election cycle drew a total Shelby County voter turnout of 27%, or just over 145,000 voters.

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Because primary elections are part of the big ballot, Election Commission numbers show that nearly 65,000 of the 2014 voters participated in the Republican primaries on the ballot and 62,000 in the Democratic primaries.

The remaining 18,000 or so voters chose to vote only in the general election on the same ballot.

Early voting turnout ahead of the August 2014 election day and including absentee, voting saw 82,403 ballots cast at 21 locations, or about 57% of the total vote.

Turnout for the 2006 big ballot in Shelby County was 27.2% or 164,434 voters.

Most of the primary turnout, 90,262, was in the Democratic state and federal primaries on that ballot, with 42,175 in the Republican primaries. A total of 32,000 didn’t vote in the primaries.

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The July 2006 early voter turnout with absentees was about 77,300, or 47% of the total vote.

This will be the last election for touch screen voting machines without some kind of paper trail.

But early voters at all 26 sites will get a look at the future Saturday, July 16, when the Election Commission and Shelby County Voter Alliance bring the new machines for voters to try out and get accustomed to ahead of the November elections.

The Saturday “expo” will feature demonstrations — before or after voters cast their real ballots — of the updated touch screen machines.

The updated machines include a paper read out of a voter’s choices that the voter checks and then feeds into a digital scanner, which then carries the paper listing to a sealed ballot box.

Voters can also check their new election day precincts for November on maps that will be available as part of the expo.

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The new voting machines in November will come with an option that allows voters to bypass them completely and instead vote with a hand-marked paper ballot that is fed into the same digital scanners and into a sealed ballot box.

The compromise is creating some confusion among voters making their preparations for the August ballot. The paper ballot option is not an option for early voting that starts Friday, although some paper ballots are available to vote provisional ballots under certain conditions.


August 2022 election early voting

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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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