The Tennessee state legislature, like many Republican-controlled state bodies around the country, has given a lot of attention to voter fraud as of late.
The nationwide push for strict voter ID laws was ostensibly aimed at stopping in-person voter impersonation — a phenomenon deemed “virtually nonexistent” by a comprehensive study released by Carnegie-Knight’s News21 project last month. But in Davidson County, the questions that arose after the Aug. 2 primary focused not on those voting in elections, but rather the state and local bodies that govern them.
The controversy was set off when Tennessee Citizen Action released evidence that some voters in Davidson County, including three elected county officials, had received Republican ballots without being asked which ballot they wanted. Their experiences suggested that new electronic poll books, in use at 60 of the county’s 160 voting precincts, had been set to treat the Republican ballot as the default choice.
In this case, after election data was released by Davidson County Election Administrator Albert Tieche, there doesn’t seem to be evidence of any tampering, or reason to believe the outcome of any election is in question. Moreover, the Davidson County Election Commission has since decided not to use EPBs in this fall’s general elections. But the episode has provoked questions about who is responsible for ensuring the integrity of elections, and whether they have the ability to do so.
When evidence of problems with the EPBs surfaced, Tennessee Citizen Action and state House and Senate Democrats alike called on the state to stop the certification process until questions about the EPBs and the county commission’s handling of the election could be addressed. In response, the state essentially made the same argument it had when former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Larry Crim recently sued the state Division of Elections, demanding that they stop certification of the primary elections: Counties, not the state, certify elections, it said, and all 95 counties had already certified their results.
In the face of repeated calls for intervention, Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office has maintained that stance, citing the time constraints presented by the upcoming general elections and arguing that the job of certifying elections is delegated to and better done by the county commissions.
“People don’t understand that the state division of elections has a staff of nine people, out of 95 counties that they’re trying to assist,” Hargett spokesman Blake Fontenay told The City Paper. “So, they can’t be everywhere, and they can’t be the primary point of contact in trying to resolve issues that come up in elections. It’s number one, not their job, and two, not physically possible with the manpower they have.”
Asked if that fact leaves the door open for errors, or worse, in the electoral process, Fontenay argues that the door is supposed to be manned by the county commissions.
“Well, I think the safeguard is supposed to come at the county level,” he said. “That’s where it’s hoped that these kinds of issues would be picked up, and as we’ve said pretty consistently, they are the responsibility of the county election commissions.”
But officials at the county level assert that’s not entirely their responsibility either. Like the state, they cited time constraints and parsed the burden of ensuring fair elections.
State law requires the county commission to “meet no later than the third Monday after the election to certify the results.” After that, there is a five-day period during which candidates can challenge the results. By the fourth Thursday after a primary election, the state Coordinator of Elections — currently Mark Goins — must declare the nominees.
Both Tieche and Lynn Greer, a Republican and chair of the Davidson County Election Commission, ultimately conceded that the recent problems would likely not be caught during the certification process.
“Well, it may have,” Greer said after the commission’s meeting last week. “It was not brought to our attention on a widespread basis. The best we could figure, at probably about the time of certification, that this had happened in six or seven instances. And this is before they sat down and really did the study that they’ve done in the past week. So, the problem with all of this is, once you certify the election — and that’s our only job, to count the votes and certify — then it’s out of our hands.”
He continued, explaining the certification process: “What we do is what they call ‘canvas the ballots.’ That’s when our people go back through, and go through the ballots, go through the precincts, and look to see if there’s anything abnormal. But off the machine, we wouldn’t normally notice it. We did go back and find this information, but it was done after the certification, because we were not alerted to the fact until after.”
Greer said candidates “need to start doing their homework” after an election, if they believe something abnormal has occurred. He also noted that a candidate’s challenge would have to go to the state executive committee of their party, since the county commissions “actually run the August election for the two parties.”
“There’s a lot of burden on the candidates if they believe that something has been done wrong,” he said.
Tieche, who at the commission’s meeting lamented the difficulty the county has recruiting volunteers to work the polls, also cited the short time frame for certification. Ironically though, he said the electronic poll books made it easier to compile the data used to investigate the recent problems.
Again, the data presented by the county commission suggests there’s no reason to doubt the outcome of even the county’s closest election — the House District 58 Democratic primary, which was decided by a mere 41 votes. But it does cause one to wonder what would have happened if the data did provoke doubt.
Fontenay notes, as Greer did, that the respective party executive committees would rule on any candidate challenge to a primary contest. In a general election, he said, it would be up to a court to decide.
“As the state Division of Elections,” he said, “we don’t have the kind of broad reaching authority that I think people assume that we do.”