Tennessee Black Voter Project contends Shelby County violating state, federal laws

By Published: October 23, 2018 4:00 AM CT

The Tennessee Black Voter Project – reviewing voter registration applications in Memphis – believes the Shelby County Election Commission is violating state and federal law and demands changes be made before Election Day Nov. 6.

The group is inspecting a portion of thousands of voter registration forms deemed incomplete by the election commission office after filing an open records lawsuit Oct. 16 seeking a court order to check the forms.

Through Nashville attorney Ben Gastel, the organization negotiated with election commission attorneys and started looking at records Thursday, Oct. 18, making a “partial review” as part of the open records request filed in Shelby County Chancery Court.

Gastel said Monday a field team looked at “some but not all” of the registration forms considered incomplete by the commission.

Tennessee Black Voter Project contends many people who filled out registration forms in its drive could miss out on voting because of mistakes by the election office.

“I haven’t heard any updates on my voter registration form, whether I’ve been accepted or rejected,” said Stephen Penn, 50, a lifelong Shelby County resident who noted in a statement he registered two months ago. “I don’t know what the procedure is, but I provided my address and my phone number, so I feel like I should have been contacted by now. I’m trying to vote because my health care is on the line, and I’m trying to have a voice to fix the issues that aren’t getting solved.”

Tennessee Black Voter Project requested written confirmation by noon Monday that the election commission would take four steps: 1) allow eligible voters to correct deficiencies on voter registration forms and cast a regular ballot on Election Day; 2) notify affected voters they can still vote in the election by taking care of problems at polls during early voting or on Election Day; 3) provide a list of incomplete and rejected voter registration applications; and 4) correct practices it contends are violating federal and state law.

The group says it is concerned some applications are considered incomplete or invalid because applicants didn’t mark a salutation checkbox with surnames such as Mrs., Mr. and Miss and that others are being deemed incomplete because the applicants recently moved back to Shelby County from another county.

A coalition of more than a dozen Tennessee community, labor and nonprofit organizations, the Tennessee Black Voter Project submitted more than 35,000 voter registration applications to the Shelby County Election Commission before its Oct. 9 deadline as part of a statewide effort to boost voter participation in Tennessee, which lags at 40th nationwide.

Election commission downplays complaints

Pablo Varela of Harris Shelton Hanover Walsh PLLC, who represents the Shelby County Election Commission, pointed out in a statement the commission received a “staggering” number of registrations this year, most from the Tennessee Black Voter Project and a “majority” of them had problems.

“In an effort to resolve those issues, the Shelby County Election Commission and the Tennessee Black Voter Project entered into a consent order and confidentiality agreement,” Varela said. “The agreement allowed counsel for the Tennessee Black Voter Project to review the registrations with issues.

“Most of the issues involve duplicate registrations, meaning the election commission received a registration for a voter who is already registered to vote,” Varela said. “There were a large number of registrations from persons who were ineligible to vote due to a felony conviction or because they would be under 18 on Election Day. A number of the registrations were illegible. Other documents reviewed included registrations that are missing pertinent and required information, as well as sample deficiency letters being sent to correct the missing information.”

An election commission “help desk” will help voters with incomplete registrations fill in the missing information on their applications when they go vote, according to Varela.

Shelby County administrator of elections Linda Phillips pointed out Tennessee requires voters to provide their gender. Forms without that information are considered incomplete and the office contacts the voter to “cure” the problem.

Phillips has said more than 55 percent of the forms were “invalid” for a variety of reasons such as duplicate registrations and incomplete information. Her comments elicited questions from Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen of Memphis and three Memphis legislators who raised concerns about voter registration details with the Tennessee Division of Elections in the Secretary of State’s office.

“Regardless of whether or not mistakes were intentional, the responsibility is on the election commission to fix these things. There’s still time to fix these problems, and I hope we get answers to our questions about staffing, resources, and what voters see on the actual voting machines."
Corey Strong, Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman

The Tennessee Black Voter Project asked in its lawsuit whether valid registration forms are being “wrongly rejected,” and what steps the commission is taking to make sure voters “can effectively exercise their statutory rights to correct incomplete or deficient registrations” on or before Election Day so they vote by Nov. 6, according to the court filing. Questions also have been raised about felons and whether they’ve been notified how to regain their voting rights.

Federal and state law requires people to be notified by election offices if their voter registration application is filled out incorrectly, according to the lawsuit.

The organization submitted an open records request Oct. 5 to the Shelby County Election Commission after being blocked by officials from reviewing incomplete or deficient registrations, according to its filing. It also sought to help eligible voters solve problems with forms and determine whether any of the registrations were incorrectly deemed invalid, the lawsuit says.

Phillips initially predicted the election office would be able to process all of those applications before early voting started Oct. 17, but she later said the commission wouldn’t finish entering about 24,000 voter registration applications into its system.

Consequently, the office set up a plan in which election officials at early voting sites can check on pending and incomplete applications at a central office and finish the process, enabling people to vote.

Despite those plans, Tennessee Black Voter Project said the county office still hasn’t come up with a process for allowing people to deal with registration problems on Election Day.

Democrats voice complaints

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Mary Mancini and Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Corey Strong said Monday problems with the voting process need to be resolved ahead of Nov. 6.

They pointed toward issues such as the purging of voter rolls in high numbers, failure to process new-voter registration applications, machine calibration problems such as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Karl Dean’s name appearing later on the ballot compared to Republican Bill Lee’s name, and situations with electronic poll books, staffing shortages leading to long waits and delayed reporting of early voting numbers to the Secretary of State’s office.

“Regardless of whether or not mistakes were intentional, the responsibility is on the election commission to fix these things,” Strong said in a Memphis press conference. “There’s still time to fix these problems, and I hope we get answers to our questions about staffing, resources, and what voters see on the actual voting machines. To the voters: If your vote wasn’t important, they wouldn’t be trying to take it away from you.”

Mancini said election commissions “need to do their job” after voters did their part by registering and showing up to cast ballots.

“When you combine all of the issues voters are witnessing so far, what troubles us is that it seems to be favoring one party and suppressing voters that would typically vote for Democrats and voters of colors. Our message to voters: We have your back,” Mancini said.

She urged any voters who run into problems to call the Voter Protection hotline at 855-844-VOTE (8683).

The Shelby County Election Commission has been sued several times for matters such as early voting restrictions in African-American neighborhoods, misleading ballot language and voting tally inaccuracies, according to the Tennessee Black Voter Project.

“Tennessee voter participation is worse than nearly every state in the nation," Shelby County Commission Chairman Van Turner said in a statement. "We should applaud and encourage every effort to increase participation in our elections – especially a campaign that submitted registration forms for more than 36,000 new voters,.” 

Turner urged the election commission to work with the Tennessee Black Voter Project and allied organizations to make sure registered voters are validated and allowed to vote.


Ben Gastel Tennessee Black Voter Project Steve Cohen Pablo Varela "Linda Phillips
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.

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