Divide over voting equipment in Shelby County

Published: May. 4, 2022 at 10:31 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The clock is ticking for Shelby County to order new voting equipment, but the two groups tasked with getting it done still don’t see eye to eye on which kind of voting machines to buy.

Mark Luttrell, the former sheriff and mayor of Shelby County, now heads the Shelby County Election Commission.

Job one, he told Action News 5, is to get this done.

“We are woefully, woefully inadequate when it comes to this,” he said, “If there’s been any voter suppression in Shelby County, it’s because we don’t have up-to-date equipment. It’s just not efficient.”

Even with a short ballot and low voter turnout, final results in Tuesday’s primary took several hours to tabulate.

“It’s taking longer,” said Shelby County Administrator of Elections Linda Phillips, “because our equipment is old. With every election, it gets a little slower. It gets a little harder.”

The Shelby County Election Commission voted to purchase ballot marking devices, electronic voting machines. 

The Shelby County Commission approved nearly $6 million for the purchase, but a majority of commissioners want the paper ballot system, allowing hand marked ballots.

“If the machines go down,” said Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, who is also president of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP, “if there’s a problem with electricity, a problem with the machine malfunctioning, guess what? Paper doesn’t malfunction. Paper doesn’t rely on electricity.”

“We’re not convinced of that,” Luttrell replied, “It’s just not an efficient method. It’s really more costly. People think paper ballots would be so much simpler, but it’s not.”

The Shelby County Election Commission sued the Shelby County Commission last September, hoping a judge could resolve the stalemate.

“We voted to sue them,” said Bennie Smith, the lone democrat on the election commission, “a judge at the local level basically said I don’t know who’s right and I don’t know who’s wrong. So somebody’s got to say at the appellate level who’s right.”

And with the August General Election featuring a much longer ballot, both sides now seek a speedy compromise.

“We can’t afford for any malfunctions or mishaps to occur in August,” said Turner, “so it would be my preference we get something done before August.”

“It’s not as if the sky is falling,” said Luttrell, “We’re not going to not have an election. We just will not have an efficient election that we could have if we had new equipment.” Complicating matters, the make-up of the county commission will change September 1 when at least six new members will be sworn in, so there is an urgency to try and reach an agreement before then.

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