Shelby Co. Election Commission faces lawsuit over early voting

Published: Apr. 1, 2022 at 10:59 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Shelby County Election Commission is being sued by three Memphis groups that say the commission’s early voting plan for the upcoming county primary will disenfranchise minority voters.

The Shelby County primary is May 3. Early voting starts in less than two weeks on April 13. And on the first two days of early voting only one location will be open and the plaintiffs say that’s just wrong.

“There’s really no logical reason all precincts can’t be open every day of early voting,” Memphis NAACP President Van Turner told Action News 5.

Turner says his organization joined UpTheVote901 and the Black Clergy Collaborative in filing a lawsuit against the Shelby County Election Commission on Thursday, March 31, because only one early voting location will be open the first two days of early voting April 13 and 14.

That location is the downtown Election Commission office at 157 Poplar.

“If you’ve been downtown,” said Turner, “you know that it is very difficult to park, and in most instances, you have to pay to park.”

The majority of early voting sites, most of which are located in churches, don’t open until April 18.

Former Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell is the newly elected chairman of the election commission and says the commissioners didn’t want early voting to interfere with the Easter holiday.

“Many of our polling places are in faith establishments,” said Luttrell, “and we want to minimize the impact on faith establishments during this very holy period.”

The plaintiffs’ suit says this approach “will have a detrimental effect on voting participation among core minority voters.” Their lawsuit seeks an injunction to expand the number of early voting locations.

“Two of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit are pastors,” Turner said. “And they’ve discussed this issue with a number of pastors. Number one, they’ve not been contacted, and two, they’re more than willing to have their churches open for early voting.”

The suit also accuses the Election Commission of violating the state constitution, the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Tennessee Open Meetings Act for holding what the lawsuit calls “secret meetings.”

Chairman Luttrell says the commission is confident about its early voting plan.

“We’re providing, I think, more than adequate coverage. We’re going to continue to move forward as the plan is structured,” Lutrell said. “I think every citizen that has an interest in voting will certainly have more than adequate opportunities to vote.”

County primary elections traditionally have extremely poor voter turnout, another reason the election commission felt comfortable with the dates and locations established for this early voting period.

Again, early voting in the Shelby County primary starts April 13 and runs through April 28.

Election Day is May 3rd.

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