This Is One of the Hardest Places to Vote in America

By: - November 7, 2018 12:00 am

This story is part of Stateline’s midterm election coverage.

MEMPHIS — For several hours after the polls closed Tuesday, as darkness settled and candidates and journalists anxiously scrolled through their phones, people in Tennessee’s most populous county couldn’t be sure they were getting up-to-date, accurate results in one of the closely watched races of the midterm election.

Frantic local broadcast reporters, lined up in a drab, cold room at the Shelby County Elections Commission, warned viewers time and again that results were not yet complete, despite what the county website claimed.

Until 11 that night, four hours after polls closed, the only complete results in local contests were not on the county’s website, but on the sheets of paper passed out to journalists and campaign workers in the county’s offices.

“The realities of using a 15-year-old computer system,” said Linda Phillips, the county’s elections administrator, by way of explanation, describing a system of memory cards, thumb drives and “very antiquated” technology. It was a frustrating conclusion to a frustrating midterm election.

Tennesseans voted in record numbers this year, drawn to the polls by a U.S. Senate race that saw Republican Marsha Blackburn defeat Democrat Phil Bredesen.

Problems in Georgia got more attention, but here in western Tennessee, long lines, glitchy voting machines, voter registration purges and other difficulties also tarnished the electoral process. As in Georgia, leading civil rights activists here accused local officials of making it harder for people of color to vote.

It was a similar story across the country Tuesday: Voters from New York to Utah complained of broken machines, confused poll workers and hours-long lines.

In one Georgia county, officials neglected to bring power cords to keep the machines running. In Texas, a poll worker yelled a racist comment at a black voter. In North Dakota, Native Americans were told their IDs weren’t precise enough, so tribal leaders re-printed the documents on the fly. Stateline spent the past week in one place, Shelby County, Tennessee, investigating how seemingly small and isolated challenges can add up and leave voters feeling disenfranchised.

“There are active, explicit attempts to suppress the vote in Shelby County,” said Charles McKinney, an associate professor of history at Rhodes College in Memphis. “Voter suppression is real and not a figment of our imagination. It’s not an imaginary monster under the bed. It has an impact.”

The legacy of racism in Memphis, from the city’s role in the domestic slave trade to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., scars many people of color here. In the past decade, voter-registration purges and voter ID laws have disproportionately affected minority and low-income voters.

Because of these policies, Tennessee is the third-most-difficult state in which to cast a ballot, according to a recent study published in the Election Law Journal.

Civil rights activists claim the county is complacent, if not an active participant, in discrimination. But Linda Phillips, Shelby County’s elections administrator, said the county is following state law and that she’s doing everything she can to get people to the polls.

Phillips was hired in May 2016 by the county Elections Commission, whose partisan control is determined by which party controls the state legislature — giving Republicans a 3-2 advantage over Democrats on local elections decisions. Her goal when she was hired was to improve community relations, she said.

“Memphis has some history to overcome,” she said. “It really does. But every voter that’s registered is welcome to vote.”

There is a “history of distrust,” said Myron Lowery, who served on the Memphis City Council from 1991 to 2016. Phillips has inherited that distrust, he said. But that’s no excuse for the ongoing problems.

“At some point, you have to stop making mistakes,” he said. “They always have hiccups. It’s time-out for hiccups.”

Purges, Glitches and Lawsuits

Elections in Shelby County are “chock-full of mishaps,” said Steven Mulroy, a law professor at the University of Memphis. In the past two decades, he said, voters at times were given the wrong ballots, people were falsely told they had already early voted and were turned away, and election results appeared to be manipulated by officials.

“When you add it all up, there’s a climate of distrust that’s palpable,” Mulroy said. “We have a 15-year history of election problems. But this one is silly season. It’s just one thing after another.” 

Some of the issues this season involved equipment. At times, electronic poll books lost connectivity. At the Collierville Church of Christ on the first day of early voting, for example, poll workers who didn’t realize they could check in voters manually told them to cast their ballots elsewhere or wait until the electronic poll books were fixed.

Voting machines also provided headaches. When voters across Shelby County pressed a button that enlarged text on the screen, Democrat Karl Dean’s name was bumped off the first page of gubernatorial candidates and onto the middle of the second page. Republican candidate Bill Lee still appeared on the first page.

The county was forced to put up signs at voting booths telling voters not to enlarge the text. Poll workers handed out magnifying glasses to voters struggling to read the ballot.

Shelby County voters used paperless machines that were more than a decade old, leaving them vulnerable to hacks and breakdowns. It’s also one of the many counties in Tennessee that does not have a post-election paper audit.

Starting next year, the county will use new machines that produce a paper trail. They are expensive, Phillips said, but voters prefer a paper record.

At polling places, several voters were skeptical the current machines were secure.

“I was wondering where my vote is being recorded,” said Chris Moorer, 38, who voted early a week ago. “Is it being recorded here on site? I wonder what happens if that machine breaks. It’s just mind-boggling we don’t have better machines. I don’t know what the gap is with government technology.”

Germantown resident Matt Johnston, 55, works in information technology and worried the machines lack a paper backup.

“How do you verify your vote is part of the official tally?” he asked. “It all comes down to trusting the system is working.”

And then there were the lawsuits.

In July, the county lost a lawsuit filed by the Shelby County Democratic Party and the local NAACP chapter, which claimed the county was suppressing the black vote by setting up a single polling place for the first four days of early voting during last summer’s county elections.

The location was on the eastern edge of Memphis, far from the inner city, difficult to access by public transportation and in a predominantly white area.

A judge ordered the county to open five early voting locations for that four-day early voting period in July, two of which were in heavily black areas. All 27 early voting sites opened the next week.

The county Election Commission found itself in court yet again in October over thousands of voter registration applications it had put on hold.

Shelby County said 4,000 to 6,000 applications turned in right before the registration deadline were missing information — sometimes as minimal as not checking the “Miss/Mrs./Mr.” box on the form. Others, the county claimed, were missing addresses or names, or had illegible handwriting.

Phillips said it was a widespread attempt to commit voter fraud and create chaos for her office by turning in 10,000 applications on the last day, including some by felons, who are restricted from voting in the state.

“Thousands and thousands of those applications were fictitious,” she said, though she did not offer specific evidence.

Tequila Johnson, the statewide director of the Tennessee Black Voter Project, a voter-registration group that turned in 35,000 registration applications in Shelby County since July, said the county Elections Commission is blaming her organization for its own lack of preparedness and efficiency.

“It’s disheartening,” Johnson said. “We’re being punished for being excited about participating in democracy. How could you not think this is voter suppression?”

Her organization and the local NAACP chapter sued the county to let those voters cast regular votes on Election Day as long as they corrected the information. An appeals court ruled the county had to notify residents that they could correct any deficiencies on their voter registration forms, but that they would have to cast provisional ballots.

Phillips said Tuesday night there was a countywide uptick in provisional ballots this election, but she said she wouldn’t know exact numbers until they are counted around Thanksgiving.

While the court cases were ongoing, Tennessee elections officials were cutting infrequent voters from the registration database.

Under state law, Tennessee counties must purge people from the registration rolls if they fail to vote in two subsequent November elections and do not respond to a mailer asking to confirm their address. Recently, the county removed 24,532 voters from its registration database, determining they had either moved or didn’t wish to vote anymore. Phillips pushes back on claims from Democrats that the purges amounted to a voter suppression tactic.

“It’s Tennessee state law,” she said. “I don’t get to make the law. We very carefully followed the law.”

The Mad Dash to the Polls

On the last afternoon of early voting last week, voters waited 10 minutes to vote at New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in the predominantly white suburb of Germantown. But predominantly black voters at the Anointed Temple of Praise church, known locally as ATOP, were having a very different experience.

At ATOP the wait was about 35 minutes — and it was about to get worse.

Already a chilly 50 degrees, it started raining on the 200 or so voters in line at ATOP 15 minutes before polls closed at 7 p.m. Three of the precinct’s nine voting machines were not being used. The wait time to vote for some was an hour and 45 minutes.

The chorus of cold voters complaining of the rain rose above the roar of nearby Riverdale Road and the buzz of the powerlines overhead.

When the rain picked up, the mass of voters attempted to go inside, snaking around the hallways of the church. Overwhelmed, poll workers inside called the police and threatened to shut down the polling place if people didn’t go back outside. Three officers arrived soon after.

“They’re deterring people from voting,” one voter exclaimed.

“That’s not right,” another woman said.

“We votin’ today.”

After voters went back out in the rain and officers headed back to their cruisers, one officer mumbled, “We’re not your crowd control.”

Voters there said poll workers didn’t handle the incident properly and worried some voters might have left. The polling place was too small and there weren’t enough machines to meet demand, others said.

“Being cold is one thing, rain is another,” said Collierville resident Lenova Senter. “They didn’t control the situation. They need more machines. If they’re out in the cold and the rain, you’re telling people to go home.”

But people didn’t go home. Instead, they waited.

“If I had to stay here for three hours, I would have been out here three hours to cast my vote,” said Memphis resident Patrick McCaskill Sr., 32.

The last voter of the last night of early voting, Memphis resident Terry Sharp, cast his ballot more than 90 minutes after polls officially closed. “It’s worth the vote,” said Sharp.

Sharp was among the more than 20,000 people who cast their ballot on the last day of early voting. But lines that long are unacceptable, said McKinney, the Rhodes College professor.

“There’s a critical mass of folks who are going to be disinclined to vote if it’s not efficient, fair or functioning the way it’s supposed to function,” McKinney said. “If I’m on the clock and I got an hour for lunch and it takes three hours to vote, I’m not going during lunch.”

Phillips blamed the long lines at the ATOP church on voters who needed to change their addresses — a “complicated process,” she said — and not the broken machines. Regardless, McKinney said, voters in these areas need better engagement from the county and grassroots groups.

But what happened at ATOP fits into a larger national pattern: Black and Hispanic voters often wait longer to vote, research shows. In the 2016 presidential election, black voters, on average, waited 16 minutes to vote, while Latino voters waited 13 minutes, an MIT survey of voters found. In the same election, white voters waited 10 minutes.

Earle Fisher, a senior pastor at Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis, founded Up the Vote 901. The nonpartisan organization aims to increase turnout throughout the county through ballot education efforts, partnering with churches to drive voters to polls, and holding block parties to attract voters with free food, music and tables with job recruiters.

“Voting should be easy and timely, which are two things that it is not in Shelby County for people of color, especially in low-income communities,” he said. “Suppression is strategic and intentional. This is not new.”

Fisher said there should be more polling places in areas with the lowest turnout — North Memphis, South Memphis, Frayser, Binghampton and Hickory Hill — to encourage more participation.

But Phillips disagrees that adding more voting locations in some of those places will increase turnout. More polling locations means more equipment and staff — something she said she worries will cost too much. Her office has put enough polling locations along bus lines, she said.

Turning on the Machines

After the drama of early voting, Election Day had far fewer errors, but Tuesday wasn’t without flaws.

At Trinity United Methodist Church in Midtown, things got off to a rough start when the polls opened: The voting machines weren’t working.

The line swelled to 80 people in the 20 minutes it took poll workers to fix the connectivity issues. Some decided to leave and come back later.

“The poll workers were panicked,” said Sam Goff, a Midtown resident. “They just didn’t know how to turn on the machines.”

Voters were clearly excited this year. But facing those voters were the realities of local, underfunded election offices using outdated equipment susceptible to glitches and human error. Phillips said she was proud of her staff, who hadn’t had a day off in six weeks, despite the challenges.

“This is not a typical election,” Phillips said. “This is not a typical midterm. But I work very hard to make sure that every eligible voter has the same opportunities.”

In the final hours of Election Day, state Sen. Raumesh Akbari rolled up to Pine Hill Community Center in her white SUV and stepped out to greet constituents.

Vote Mob, a national nonprofit that tries to engage millennial voters, had set up a DJ table and food truck at the precinct, blaring R&B and pop classics, and giving out a meal to every voter.

Akbari, a Democrat, said the voting problems add to the apathy of many people who live in South Memphis, who struggle in their everyday lives.

“You feel like it’s not going to make a difference,” she said. “I don’t want to say it’s sinister and deliberate, but there’s just a high level of incompetence. It’s always something going on — some foolishness. You see it on the news and think, they’re going to take away my vote.”

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.