Jenkins rules against election commission, orders immediate voter registration remedies

By Published: October 25, 2018 8:28 PM CT

Shelby County Chancellor JoeDae Jenkins ruled Thursday in favor of the Memphis Branch NAACP and the Tennessee Black Voters Project in a lawsuit that will require the Shelby County Election Commission to give potential voters a chance to fix their voter registration applications so they can cast ballots on the Nov. 6 election day. 

Jenkins ordered the election commission to keep in place a system it is using now during early voting for rectifying voter registration application problems through Election Day. He also ordered election officials to immediately notify potential voters whose applications are incomplete of problems with their applications, giving them a chance to rectify the problems, and to begin providing daily updates of its progress on the backlog of 4,000 to 6,000 potential voters whose forms remain unprocessed since the Oct. 9 deadline to register to vote.

The Memphis Branch NAACP and the Tennessee Black Voters Project lawsuit argued that voters should be notified of problems in their registration applications and given a chance to correct them and participate as voters.

Election commission attorney John Ryder said he will appeal the ruling immediately including seeking a stay on the ruling taking effect.

“We feel that the chancellor was clearly erroneous in his ruling both as to the facts and as to the law,” Ryder said. “And that this is a case that requires us to appeal to the Court of Appeals on an emergency basis. We will be doing that forthwith.”

Attorney Alexander Wharton, representing the NAACP and the TBVP, said the major part of the ruling was keeping in place an election commission system that alphabetized incomplete voter registration forms – many submitted by the voter project – at a centralized help center. If those voters show up during early voting, the help center can effectively complete their registration forms and allow them to vote.

“That allows those individuals to vote traditional ballots without the provisional status,” Wharton said, adding that he thought the chancellor was “careful and wise to not necessarily put more on the election commission than necessary but still comply with the court’s ruling ultimately to get those individuals notified.”

With the list of the those 4,000 to 6,000 people, TBVP and Up the Vote 901 intend to contact the potential voters to help remedy incomplete forms.

The election commission, backed with a memo issued earlier in th day Thursday by state elections coordinator Mark Goins, argued that a sealed, provisional ballot that is then reviewed days later by a committee to determine the validity of the vote, is the way to deal with applications still pending on Election Day.

Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips, during her testimony at the four-hour hearing Thursday, testified that most of the remaining forms are so incomplete that it’s impossible to know who to contact. She has also been critical of the TBVP for “dumping” 10,000 applications at the registration deadline and “overwhelming” the system. And she said some of the registrations appeared fraudulent.

Phillips argued there is no difference in voting on election machines and casting a provisional ballot as a necessary step to determine if someone is a qualified voter.

“I don’t want fraudulent voters to vote, and that is my issue,” she testified.

Phillips anticipated the processing of the forms would be completed, one way or another, by the Nov. 1 deadline by state law to have voter rolls complete.

Without notice of problems and a chance to fix those problems, Jenkins said the voter registration process “denies them a due process right under law.”

He also ruled that provisional ballots are an alternative that many voters “may choose not to pursue.”

“The harm to the (voter registration) applicants far outweighs the harm to the election commission,” Jenkins said in his ruling from the bench, adding the system should be used to register and turn out “as many voters as possible.”

He concluded by telling attorneys for both sides, “I need you all to work out language that does not tie the hands of the (elections) administrator.”

The ruling is the second by Jenkins since July affecting the conduct of elections in Shelby County. In July, Jenkins ordered the election commission to add early voting sites and change the hours so that more sites were open from the outset of the early voting period in advance of the Aug. 2 election day.



JoeDae Jenkins Alexander Wharton John Ryder Linda Phillips
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

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

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