Did the election commission learn from the Yarbro-Henry debacle?

Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 11:45pm

Heading into Election Day, there was no shortage of storylines for the Democratic primary showdown between longtime state Sen. Douglas Henry and attorney Jeff Yarbro for the state Senate’s District 21 seat.

Now, thanks to its razor-thin margin, Nashville’s most closely watched local race has produced yet another, this time centered on the mechanics of Election Day itself. With widespread confusion over how a simple vote count could change so frequently — four times as of this writing, pending an upcoming official recount — city leaders and political observers are scratching their heads over the election night performance of the Davidson County Election Commission, wondering whether lessons have been learned to make the next round of voting in November go more smoothly.

“I think that anybody that is following this has got to have some concerns,” At-large Metro Councilman Ronnie Steine said. “There just seems to be one thing after another. And there seems to be kind of this constant dribble of things that aren’t quite right about the processes.”

The real drama on Election Day — which happened to be the second-to-last for retiring Elections Administrator Ray Barrett — began at 9 p.m., when the commission informed 33-year-old Yarbro he had won by 18 votes. Henry, 83, had been told of his apparent loss and was quietly smoking a cigar outside his election party, perhaps reflecting on his long legislative career.

His mood would change. Initial figures included absentee ballots that were hand-counted by a four-member team called in after Barrett learned of a malfunction in an absentee voting scanner at 5:30 p.m. on Election Day. Soon a new count emerged, factoring in an election staffer’s tally sheet that covered for the broken machine. Henry enjoyed a two-vote advantage. Gloom at the Henry party soon turned to celebration, but there were still two provisional ballots left to count.

Those two provisional ballots, as fate would have it, were validated and awarded to Yarbro the next Monday. But they didn’t make up the difference. Late in the afternoon of the previous Friday, attorneys for Yarbro had visited the election commission, where they learned of new numbers that, when later combined with the two provisional ballots, showed Yarbro down by 13 votes. Figures would change yet again the next week, when a previously uncounted voting machine was discovered during a normal audit of election results, bringing Yarbro’s deficit to 11 votes.

“Certainly, I think they need to take some steps,” Steine said. “At this point in time, I don’t know if there’s anything major. Some of that may just be miscommunication and not inaccuracy. Maybe it’s bad information and not bad counting. But discovering a machine has just got to raise questions for everybody.”

Changes needed

No one is suggesting procedures ran catastrophically afoul, but observers have a few ideas about how the Election Day protocol could be tweaked. Some say Barrett could assign a liaison to deliver elections results to reporters.

“You need somebody who is a point person on the voting process who is going to be the official spokesperson, who is going to give the official data, and all else should be disregarded,” At-large Metro Councilwoman Megan Barry said.

“It’s pretty clear to me that the way the numbers got reported, it fostered some misinformation,” Barry said. “Not having complete data before they were released, it was a mistake to put this stuff out there. And it causes distrust in the process with voters.”

Barrett pinned the Election Day confusion on the malfunctioning absentee ballot scanner. He has acknowledged that the first batch of unofficial absentee numbers — showing Yarbro as the winner — should not have been released.

“Usually, if the scanner had worked, we would have had all those votes at 7 o’clock, early voting, absentees and all,” Barrett said. “Since the scanner broke, which we found out at 5:30, we had to bring those [counting] teams.”

Davidson County Election Commission Chairman Lynn Greer said lessons can be learned “whether you do everything right or wrong,” but he attributed some of the confusion to the Yarbro campaign’s response to unofficial numbers.

“Jeff’s brother [Jason Yarbro] was standing outside … and somebody walked up and gave him a number,” Greer recalled. “And it was before all the tally sheets had been counted, and that probably shouldn’t have happened. They [the Yarbro campaign] kept saying, ‘The numbers changed.’ But I was standing there when he was shown the number, and the person who showed it to him and I both said, ‘That’s not official. Don’t take that to the bank.’

Barrett, who has received high marks since replacing embattled administrator Michael McDonald in 2004, is set to retire this year. His replacement will add to the change ushered in when the five-member commission switched from Democratic to Republican control after the GOP gained command of the state House in 2008. Greer said the commission has “no one in mind” to replace Barrett and would review all applicants.

12 Comments on this post:

By: drusie on 8/23/10 at 4:41

Workers on election day are mainly temporaries with minimal training. Most are earning extra money to supplement their Social Security checks. Their service is much appreciated. It isn't the same, however, as having full-time, fully trained election workers at every box. Money spent to hire more full-time staff and training them could be worth it.

By: TharonChandler on 8/23/10 at 7:14

This is the most important article in Tennessee, today; if not in the entire country. Every political debate and heart felt sentament of the people is worthless if we cannot have a fair and valid election. Every citizen contender who risks his life and career in order to be an honest candidate for the masses is discounted when we have no accurate vote count. Further, it consolidates corruption and discourages honest people from voting. The most important tally may be about the actual number or percentage of quallified and willing voters participating (or else abstaining) from every election count; as a show of confidence in the system. Thanks

By: TharonChandler on 8/23/10 at 7:21

Though the name of 'Yarbro' has never been my favorite in life i believe that old Henry is a major cause of corruption in TN (even while it might not be him personally causing it). Is he aligned with the old tobacco network (prostitution)? Don't they have a form of 'child support' for the prostitutes they are dating; which causes unethical 'cat-fights' out in the districts (over the money used to assuage any new guys needs, in order to maintain the corrupt system)? A win by the challenger could help bring TN in to a new and less corrupt era. Thanks

By: Lealand419 on 8/23/10 at 9:01

What troubles me at least as much is...
Why would the Davidson County (or any) Election Commission be "in the control of" either the Democratic or Republican party??? Wouldn't it make far more sense for it to be independent -- or at the very least comprised of an equal number from each party? (Ideally, of course, independents and others would also be included.)

And, yes, it is high time we had some new blood in the state senate. Mr. Henry's had his time, far and away!

By: not_guilty on 8/23/10 at 9:31

TharonChandler's comment of 8:21 is scurrilous and disgusting. No one who knows Senator Henry regards him as anything other than a principled gentleman and a man of unquestioned integrity.

By: TharonChandler on 8/23/10 at 9:46

sir; I din't make any comments to the NCP nor about doug henry, on 08/21, 2010.

Thanks anyway and if he is the one causing local woman to act like their children belong to some richer fellow, or anything like that, then he can go to hell.

By: FLeFew on 8/23/10 at 10:00

Finally, a reporter that actually researched the story to see that :

(1) the election staff is still the same old Democrat bunch that has run Nashville elections for years. The law was changed a few years ago to keep the Commission members from having a say in the hiring and firing of any staff other that the Coordinator of Elections and the courts have interfered in replacing them. When the current Coordinator retires after November, then you can blame the Republicans for the results.

(2) the erroneous first count with Yarbro winning was not an official release of numbers but someone's attempt to be a "good guy." Therefore, the "commission" did not release three counts.

By: Lealand419 on 8/23/10 at 10:03

Why can't Election Commissions be independent?! Why must they be controlled by one party (at a time)? That makes no sense to me.

By: not_guilty on 8/23/10 at 10:28

What about the comment "on 8/23/10 at 8:21", which is what I referenced? Your use of weasel words reminds me of a former president who cavilled about "what the definition of 'is', is."

By: TharonChandler on 8/23/10 at 11:17

well, if yuns don't like it you can buzz off, butt out, up-chuck and no mannanna.

By: meera on 8/23/10 at 12:08

"Davidson County Election Commission Chairman Lynn Greer said lessons can be learned “whether you do everything right or wrong,” but he attributed some of the confusion to the Yarbro campaign’s response to unofficial numbers."

So let's get this straight: Greer is saying the confusion is Yarbro's fault because they believed the election commission when they notified BOTH Yarbro and Henry that Yarbro was the winner. And I suppose it was Yarbro's fault that the number changed again when his attorneys visited the Commission office on Friday and discovered an entirely different margin due to an error in the tally sheets. And it was Yarbro's fault also that the Commission LOST a voting machine which changed the numbers a 4th time.

It seems like all the Election Commission learned is that if things go awry, it must clearly be SOMEBODY ELSE'S fault.

If this story does not scare the pants off of every democracy loving American, I don't know what would. The lesson learned here is that any close election is just a "best guess" at who won. Confusion and distrust can at least be somewhat mitigated by a facade of competency on behalf of those charged with running the election.

By: pswindle on 8/23/10 at 12:51

What could one expect because we sat back as a nation and let the 2000 election be stolen right from under us. If VP Gore had been able to take office, we would not be in two wars and broke. If the ones that hate him, know that the smarter one was robbed. TN should hang its head in shame. It is all our fault.