Judge halts lawsuit against Shelby County Election Commission

Published: Apr. 11, 2022 at 5:26 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A Shelby County judge ruled Monday that three groups lacked sufficient evidence to support their allegations that the Shelby County Election Commission violated the Tennessee Constitution, the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The three groups: Shelby County NAACP, the Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis, and UpTheVote901 accused the commission of voter suppression by only opening one precinct at the start of early voting and not contacting churches to see if they would want to open their facilities for early voting during Holy Week.

“The public is not given ample information or adequate access,” Earl Fischer, Founder of UpTheVote901, said after the judge’s ruling.

The county’s election commission’s plan is to have one site open for the first two days, April 13th and 14th, of early voting for the upcoming Shelby County party primary races.

On Saturday, five more sites will open at the AgriCenter, Arlington Safe Room, Baker Community Center, Dave Wells Community Center, and Glenview Community Center from 10a.m.-4p.m.

On Monday, following Easter Sunday, an additional twenty sites will open for early voting, which ends April 28th.

Election commission officials stated policy only requires they have one voting precinct open for the duration of early voting and that they have much more access for early voters than Davidson County (Nashville).

They also stated that traditionally when early voting intersects with Holy Week, voter turnout is low, and they felt the one site before Good Friday and five more before Easter was sufficient.

Shelby County Administrator of Elections Linda Phillips said her reasoning for her office not contacting pastors was based on precedent from previous elections.

“Every election is different, and we try to recognize that when we develop our plans,” said Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips. “In past experience, no election commission, dating back to the mid-2000s, has ever opened all of the early voting sites during Holy Week.”

However, voting rights advocates from the three plaintiff groups said the lack of access to voting in the first three days of early voting is detrimental to members of minority communities in Memphis and that the decision not to contact pastors can possibly be categorized as voter suppression.

“Churches are not only willing but we want to open our sites,” said Pastor J. Lawrence Turner of Mississippi Blvd. Christian Church.

“There are 600,000 registered voters in this county, and (Shelby County Election Commission) will open up one site for the first couple of days and then five? Then they act like opening up 20 more sites is somehow doing us a favor?” Fisher said.

Phillips said because voter turnout is so low during early voting, let alone during a county primary, the commission felt their measures are appropriate and that it would not make sense to open and staff multiple precincts for such limited foot traffic.

“The plan was passed February 28th,” Phillips said. “To drag us in court two days before early voting starts and want to upturn the entire plan is not realistic.”

“I do think the election commission has to take the initiative and do their due diligence,” Lawrence said. “If it takes assigning multiple staff persons to make those calls or send emails and get response to see where churches are, I think the election commission has to commit the dedicated resources to do that.”

While the result is not what plaintiffs wanted, they feel the window is still open for increasing voting access for registered Shelby County voters.

“We can have these discussion about what it means moving forward, not just in early voting and election day for Shelby County primary but also the elections upcoming in August, November, and beyond,” Fisher said.

Election Day for the Shelby County primary is May 3.

Registered voters can also vote absentee if they qualify under one of the categories listed by the election commission.

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