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Early voting opens with new voting system and new trends

By  and , Daily Memphian Updated: October 19, 2022 7:11 PM CT | Published: October 19, 2022 3:57 PM CT

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Early voting began Wednesday, Oct. 19, at 26 locations across Shelby County with voters lined up at the opening of several locations, some new restrictions on campaigning outside some of the locations and some quick repairs of the new voting technology.

Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips counted five people in line at the Downtown Election Commission early voting site including herself. She compared that to 20 on the opening day in July ahead of the Aug. 4 election day.

“But it’s too early to tell,” she said of what that means for overall turnout.

Early voting for local, state, national general election begins on Oct. 19

Phillips is more certain about the shift of a majority of the votes cast locally from election day to the early voting period.

“I think we’re never going to see a return to a massive number of people voting on election day,” she said.

Opening day of early voting for the same election cycle four years ago posted a turnout of 10,504 including nursing home and absentee balloting along with the votes cast at 27 locations.

That was toward a total of 190,956 early and absentee voters for the period. And the early vote accounted for the majority — 64.5% — of all votes cast in the November 2018 election.

The opening day total in 2014 for the same election cycle was 2,755, including absentee ballots, toward a total for the period of 84,711.

Ballot Basics: Early Voting Oct. 19-Nov. 3

The 2018 turnout — absentee, early and election day — of 51.1% of the county’s voters was the first majority turnout for a nonpresidential general election in Shelby County since 1994.

Later Wednesday morning, Phillips talked with a technician who had repaired some glitches in a printer at the voter check-in table. It was partially printing the header for the paper fed into the voting machines for the first-time paper audit trail for voters to review.

The glitch was quickly repaired.

Collierville Church of Christ, a popular early voting site, was not allowing campaigning or political signs at the start of the property line on Shelton Road.

In previous elections, candidates would spend nearly all day at the church waving to voters as they entered the parking lot before heading inside to cast their ballot.

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This year, a large yellow-and-black sign says no signs or campaigning is permitted, which was unexpected by candidates.

William Boone, a candidate for Collierville alderman, stood next to his flag planted near the church entrance despite the request.

Even when there is no early voting, the sites are usually festooned with campaign signs along the streets they border.

In this case, the campaign workers moved to nearby Compassion Church on Houston Levee Road, about 4.5 miles away.

By state law, there can be no signs or campaigning within 100 feet of the polling place. There are usually wooden stakes marking the 100-foot boundary.

New voting machines prepped for start of early voting

Depending on where the specific voting site is, that usually leaves some room for campaign workers to roam and hand out campaign material including endorsement ballots.

“It’s not unprecedented,” Shelby County Election Commission Chairman Mark Luttrell said of what was a decision by the church to close off the property entirely to the campaigning.

“We do try to work with the ownership and talk to them about it, but ultimately it’s their decision,” he said, adding a ban on campaigning beyond the 100-foot barrier is usually made as part of the lease between the election commission and owners of the early voting sites.

Tennessee Shakespeare Company in Cordova has taken a similar stance in the past, according to Luttrell.

Tennessee Shakespeare became an early voting location in Cordova with the August election after the Agricenter International location closed to early voting because of renovation work.

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Over the years, Agricenter had a reputation for aggressive campaign workers at the 100-foot markers that voters had to walk through.

Phillips said absentee ballots, which come in by mail before, during and after the early voting period, are running higher than expected so far.

“We’ve got about a third more absentee ballots than I would have expected for this election already,” she said. “I think the number of people that are going to going to vote by mail — that’s a permanent increase for us.”

Phillips said early voting is also less costly with the spread of balloting across 14 days.

“If we had to vote an entire population on election day, we would have three times as much equipment as we have,” she said. “Instead of spending $5.9 million, we’d be spending $16 million. So early voting reduces the amount of equipment a jurisdiction has to own.”

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The new voting system also comes with faster technology. Upwards of 1,100 memory sticks can be read in about 10 seconds. The sticks can hold the votes from an entire precinct as opposed to individual voting machines.

“You can read these things as fast as you can stick them in,” Phillips said.

Polling officials will no longer take memory cards to one of six locations around the county with the results relayed from there to the elections operations center at Shelby County on a private encrypted VPN channel. Instead, the memory sticks will all go to the operations center to be read.

With the debut of the new system, voters are choosing whether they want to vote on the new touch screen machines with a paper trail or a hand-marked paper ballot.

The choice was a compromise that settled a standoff between the election commission and the Shelby County Commission over the selection of a new voting system and the funding for that new voting system.

Transitions and certified vote totals fuel move to November ballot

As the votes are counted, those on both sides of the issue will be watching other totals closely that have nothing to do with deciding the winners and losers on the ballot.

They will be watching how many voted on machines and how many voters chose paper ballots.

A coalition of groups across the political spectrum are urging voters to choose hand-marked paper ballots. And it has already turned into a campaign of its own.

Shelby County District Attorney General Steve Mulroy is one of the most outspoken advocates of paper ballots over machine ballots and played a critical role in the compromise.

“The overwhelming consensus is that the most reliable form of voting is a hand-marked paper ballot. You can’t hack a pencil,” he said at a Saturday press conference by the coalition outside the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.

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“It is clearly more reliable than the machines,” he said. “Not only is it more reliable, it is also more subject to public confidence in the integrity of the election.”

“I don’t buy that,” said Phillips, who has been a vocal critic of hand-marked paper ballots.

“The exact same software, the exact same programming, the exact same scanner reads both the hand-marked ballot and a machine-marked ballot,” she said. “What I can say about the machine-marked ballot is that they don’t let you make mistakes. Voter who bubble in their own — they can over vote, they can undervote. And they can make stray marks which the scanner can’t interpret.”

But a paper ballot with those problems will stop the scanning process and the voter will be alerted to the problems.

That’s where the opposing camps on the question of hand-marked or voting machines agree — but not completely.

It could be a problem with a paper ballot. Or it could be a voter who leaves the polling place with the paper ballot or the paper readout of their choices from the machine without running either through the scanner.

In most of those case, voters aren’t likely to correct the mistake or start the voting process all over after their ballot has been voided.

“It’s been my general experience that most voters at that point don’t want to spoil the ballot and go back and start over,” Phillips said. “They will just cast the ballot anyway. On a machine-marked ballot, it’s perfect. There’s no question about what the voter meant.”

Former state representative and Memphis Shelby County Schools board member Mike Kernell, who is an advocate of hand-marked paper ballots, comes to the same conclusion about machine glitches or errors.

“People don’t like to complain if they see something wrong,” he said. “They like to go on and finish voting.”

November elections in Shelby County have a different early voting rhythm than other election cycles because election days in the November cycles are on Tuesdays instead of Thursdays.

That means the 14-day early voting period ahead of November election days begins on a Wednesday instead of a Friday.

The pattern in early voting across the board is that the first few days are lighter in turnout than the last few days of the period, which usually post the largest daily totals.

When the last day of early voting is on a Saturday with shorter hours than weekdays, the Friday daily total is normally the highest turnout day.

The exception to that was the early voting period this past July in advance of the Aug. 4 election day when the last day of the period had the largest turnout.

The tradeoff was the election day turnout five days later showed no signs of any kind of momentum transfer from the end of early voting — a trend also seen countywide in the 2020 presidential general election, which is a November election day.


Nov. 8 2022 election Shelby County Election Commission early voting voter turnout

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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.

Abigail Warren

Abigail Warren

Abigail Warren is a lifelong resident of Shelby County and a graduate of the University of Memphis. She has worked for several local publications and covers the suburbs for The Daily Memphian.


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