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Mulroy: Report of voters steered away from paper ballots ‘concerns us’

By , Daily Memphian Updated: October 29, 2022 4:00 AM CT | Published: October 29, 2022 4:00 AM CT
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Voters in at least half a dozen polling precincts are reporting that poll workers are steering them away from using paper ballots and toward voting machines, said District Attorney Steve Mulroy Friday, Oct. 28.

Mulroy, who said he was speaking as a concerned citizen and not as district attorney, expressed concern that the Shelby County Election Commission was not following through on its compromise to use both voting systems. 

“Our fear is if this tendency of the polling officials to steer people towards what they’re familiar with — the machines — if we’re hearing multiple reports from at least half a dozen locations, then it could be other locations as well. And that concerns us,” Mulroy said as he stood beside the Shelby County Election Commission headquarters Downtown on a warm Friday afternoon. 

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“But also when we move from 24 or 25 early voting locations to 143 precincts throughout the county, we need to redouble our efforts to make sure that polling officials know how to deal with paper ballots, that they offer each voter a choice and … they do not steer people in one direction or another.”

Mulroy’s remarks came during the middle of early voting, which began Oct. 19 and will continue through Nov. 3. The official voting day is Nov. 8, when residents will vote for U.S. and state representatives, and citizens of surrounding towns will vote on various township positions.

Mulroy was joined by longtime supporters of paper ballots, Shelby County Commissioner Erika Sugarmon and former County Commissioner Van Turner, plus voters who said they experienced workers attempting to dissuade them from using paper ballots. Shelby County Commissioner Britney Thornton also stood alongside the speakers but did not provide remarks. 

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The former Board of Shelby County Commissioners approved funding for the new hybrid voting system machines June 6. The new system allows Shelby County voters to choose between voting on a hand-marked paper ballot or voting on an updated touch-screen machine with a paper readout that voters run through a digital scanner and into a sealed ballot box.

<strong>Steve Mulroy</strong>

Steve Mulroy

The Election Commission introduced the new touchscreen voting machines to the public early October and hosted multiple events to demonstrate how they operate. 

But Mulroy said multiple voters at multiple voting sites are reporting that paper ballots are not offered, or that they are discouraged from using paper ballots or that the process for using hand-marked paper ballots takes too long.

Mulroy said Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, Dave Wells Community Center, Anointed Temple of Praise, White Station Church of Christ and New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church were some of the locations in which voters reported poll workers were steering people away from paper ballots. 

Janeita Lentz voted on the first day of early voting at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, 70 N. Bellevue Blvd. Although she was unaware of the compromise from the Election Commission to implement both methods of voting, she insisted she use a paper ballot. But poll workers discouraged her from doing so. 

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“I got asked several times ..., ‘Are you sure you don’t want to use the machine? Are you sure that you want to do the paper ballot? The machine is really, really easy.’ And other people standing next to me that were asking to vote on the machine I noticed were being thanked.”

She said she chalked up the experience to lack of training but said using paper ballots was not difficult. Lentz said she felt confident in her choice, knowing that she was able to manually enter her choices and review them before turning them in.

Another voter, Elena Williams, said poll workers at Dave Wells Community Center, 915 Chelsea Ave., successfully diverted her from using a paper ballot.

She said the touchscreen machine she used was touch-sensitive and would easily mark the incorrect candidate. She also said styluses were not provided like they were with the older machines and that she was not able to review and change her vote after printing the paper ballot. 

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“So if you print it, and it’s not on there, who you wanted to vote for, it is too late. You can’t do anything about it,” she said. 

<strong>Erika Sugarmon</strong>

Erika Sugarmon

Sugarmon said she was not given a choice at all when she went to vote at Anointed Temple of Praise, 3939 Riverdale Road, and said there were only two booths with paper ballots.

“I wanted to see the process for myself,” Sugarmon said. “So I went to vote, and guess what? They didn’t give me a choice. Instead, they steered me towards a machine. It was upon my request that I wanted a hand-marked paper ballot. Then, they went and got me a paper ballot with a lot of anguish … like I was really getting on their nerves.”

Linda Phillips, administrator of elections with the Shelby County Election Commission, said paper ballots are clearly offered at all locations. 

“Fortunately, the voting public can go to the polls and see for themselves that paper ballots are being offered,” Phillips said. “As with any process, there might be an outlier or two. However, the ballot options are clearly outlined on the check-in table of every voting location and all poll workers have been instructed to inform voters of their options.”

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Not all locations have gone against the Election Commission’s compromise, Mulroy said. He said the polling location at I. H. Clubhouse Lakeland has one line for touchscreen machines and another line for paper ballots. 

“And that seems to be going well. But it’s scattershot,” Mulroy said. “And we need a uniform approach where voters are uniformly every time offered a paper ballot option and then are not in any way discouraged. There should be no steering towards the machines just because the poll officials are more used to machines. So we are here to urge the election commission to redouble its efforts.”

Turner emphasized voters’ rights to ask for a hand-marked paper ballot, even if poll workers or authority figures attempt to dissuade them. 

“Voters who want to use hand-marked paper ballots should be able to use a hand-marked paper ballot,” he said. “There should be no frustration, there should be no intervention, there should be no steering in that process.”


Shelby County Election Commission Linda Phillips Steve Mulroy Shelby County Commissioner Erika Sugarmon Van Turner
Julia Baker

Julia Baker

Julia Baker covers Memphis and Shelby County’s law enforcement agencies and is a member of The Daily Memphian’s public safety reporting team. A lifelong Memphian, Julia graduated from the University of Memphis in 2021. Other publications and organizations she has written for include Chalkbeat, Memphis Flyer, Memphis Parent magazine and Memphis magazine.


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