Counting Votes in Shelby County

Shelby County's August election shows evidence of tampering and no way to guarantee the results

Most Tennessee counties have new election administrators, Republicans installed to replace Democrats after the GOP gained a majority in the General Assembly. There have been rookie foul-ups in several counties, most minor and forgivable, but what happened in Shelby County last month is a whole other beast.

With the Memphis daily paper underplaying the story, news of irregularities during the August vote has not traveled far yet. You may have heard that a technician accidentally fed a May early-vote lists to a computer instead of August data, but that is but one of numerous mistakes and oddities with the Shelby results.

Complaints of voters being refused a ballot started as soon as the polls opened, and election officials quickly diagnosed their mistake, instructing poll workers to allow voters affected by the May/August goof to use provisional ballots. Unfortunately, some voters were turned away. No one is sure how many, but it was likely too few to alter the outcome of any contest. If that were the only problem, the gaffe would fall in the "minor and forgivable" realm.

Sadly, it is not the only irregularity. The same mistake made it possible for August early voters to vote again on election day. When inspectors arrived to see election records, they found over 6,000 more votes than signed-in voters, this after days of stalling by a pit-bull attorney who kept them from computers and machines that could validate the results.

Once logs, sign-in sheets, and other records were turned over to inspectors, it became apparent that data was missing, inconsistent, and possibly manipulated. Signed machine receipts, the only physical record of the election, were found in trash bags. Logs the pit-bull attorney tried to claim were proprietary revealed that data had been overridden and updated a week after the election. Timestamps show that while inspectors were captive in an office listening to an election official read statutes, someone was accessing the computer that tallies Shelby County's votes.

Any nerd worth the raw materials in his glasses could design a voting system that is open, verifiable, and secure, yet the U.S. Congress passed mock legislation in 2002 called the "Help America Vote Act" that made American citizens more vulnerable to election fraud, even as it promised to prevent gambits like those Florida officials used to install Bush in the White House.

We no longer have complete records of public ballots. The only data we store is a daily tally from each voting machine. When a machine shuts down at the end of a day, it spits out a summary, but not the ballots themselves. If a thousand people vote on a machine, their votes are stored as a single data point. True recounts cannot be done.

In 2008, still under Democratic control, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law mandating a paper trail for this year's elections, but in 2009 Republican state officials opted to challenge the law in court rather than comply. Open, verifiable voting systems exist, but most Americans vote on unverifiable, proprietary devices like we do in Tennessee.

In Knox County, the election commission opted to retain Greg Mackay, a Democrat, as administrator, bringing in Republican Scott Frith as deputy administrator for partisan balance. Mackay's track record of even-handed, fair, and open elections made this unnecessary, but Frith, like Mackay, seems thoughtful and focused on the integrity and reliability of elections. Between those two and their staff, Knox Countians can be assured their votes are being properly counted, but many Tennesseans are not so lucky.

With redistricting up for grabs in November, the urge to cheat will never be greater.

We must keep election officials honest, and watching what happens in Memphis is crucial to understanding how elections can be secured or compromised. If you are worried your vote will not count, take a friend who does not usually vote to the polls with you. No cheat can overcome that sort of solidarity.