Shelby County could get new voting machines if lawsuit is dropped

It took nearly four hours of wrangling, questioning and the occasional sigh of patience, but Shelby County commissioners finally voted on Monday to fund new voting machines for the county to the tune of $5.8 million. .

Whether these machines are actually funded, however, depends on the Shelby County Board of Elections dropping its pending lawsuit against the Shelby County government. And whether the electoral commission will, it may depend on a key change from the original resolution presented on Monday and the final version adopted. The original, which had the backing of the electoral commission, would have had voters using the new machines in the August general election.

But the commissioners, with some expressing concerns about the time needed to learn new machines while already getting used to new constituencies, changed the resolution so that the machines would be in place for the November election instead.

Not having new machines could jeopardize the August election, election administrator Linda Phillips said.

On May 20, the Elections Commission filed a motion to expedite the appeal in its lawsuit against the county, writing about how two of the three servers used for current voting machines failed.

“The backup server periodically shuts down and we live in terror that it will stop working,” reads the petition filed by the election commission. “Consider, for example, what would happen if the server died on election night. The election results would not be lost, but it would take up to 6 p.m. to get the election summary results and 2 weeks to get the precinct results, as the results for each precinct and early voting location would have to be transcribed manually.

Voting machines:Shelby County commissioners past, present and future oppose voting machine plan

Phillips did not respond to a text message asking if the Elections Commission would withdraw its lawsuit since new voting machines were approved for the November election, not the August one. Electoral Commission Chairman Mark Luttrell also did not respond to a text asking the same question.

Later Monday evening, Phillips released a written statement: “Getting to this point has been a complex and at times contentious process, but ultimately we believe tonight’s decision by the Shelby County Commission has enabled the When using the new machines, voters can choose between voter-marked paper ballots and ballot marketing devices (digital votes), and these options will now be in place for the November 2022 elections.”

Monday’s meeting was heated and drawn out, with election commissioners hurling accusations at each other and election commission staff. County commissioners also explained how they were threatened on their personal mobile phones and emails by members of their own political parties after indicating they wanted to go ahead with a vote on new machines.

The previous plan would have restarted the bidding process

The long-running debate over funding for voting machines took several twists and turns on Monday night, just the latest example of the standoff between a county commission that has long signaled support for hand-marked paper ballots and an Elections Commission who prefers ballot marking devices.

The machines voted on Monday will cost $5.8 million ($2.4 million to be reimbursed by the state) and will allow voters to choose between an electronic or paper ballot. Opponents of the plan have expressed concern that it would lead to the majority of voters opting for an electronic ballot, leaving too few paper ballots to properly audit an election. Machines will be purchased from vendor Election Systems & Software, LLC, known as ES&S.

At one point in Monday’s meeting – nearly three hours after the discussion on voting machines – the debate appeared to be over when commissioners voted to launch a new request for proposals, planning to condense the usual deadline for these proposals are heard by vendors of voting machines, select a new supplier and purchase machines before November.

With concerns over whether all suppliers were able to participate in the original request for proposals, the process would have to be started over again, Commissioner Van Turner said.

Shelby County Commissioner Mark Billingsley practices casting a printed ballot from a ballot marking device Monday, June 6, 2022.

Some commissioners who objected to the purchase of the ES&S machines pointed out that in its original offer, ES&S had listed a proposal for nearly $4 million for ballot marking devices and $1.4 million for dollars for hand-marked paper ballots.

However, Phillips later offered to pay $5.08 million for ES&S’ ballot-marking devices and $4.8 million for the hand-marked paper ballot option, according to documents provided to The Commercial Appeal by Election Commissioner Bennie Smith. The offers of two other suppliers have also been modified. At the time, Phillips told The Commercial Appeal that changes were made due to the complexity of Tennessee law or voting practices.

“To be quite frank, with all these mistakes in this process, this shouldn’t even be before us,” said commissioner Eddie Jones Jr. “We were told what could happen even if we decided to vote there above, and I can’t go into specifics, but as long as we still have an active case on appeal, I think we should let the courts play and let this body not even do anything with it. from the beginning.

Phillips, Luttrell and their lawyer left after the commissioners had voted.

After a short break, Commissioner Mick Wright revived the debate, asking that the item be reconsidered. The curators took the item through several more iterations, eventually returning to where they started with one change: the date the machines will be implemented.

Wright, who described himself as the only commissioner to vote for every voting plan, including hand-marked paper ballots and ballot-marking devices, urged commissioners to find a solution .

“The Shelby County government is failing to perform some of the basic functions and responsibilities that we have,” Wright said. “Now we have a problem with our government continuing and potentially not being able to hold an election. It’s inexcusable. I think it’s time for Shelby County to work together, to put aside our differences and find a way forward.

The final version of the resolution was approved by a 9-4 vote, with Commissioners Mickell Lowery, Amber Mills, Mark Billingsley, David Bradford, Edmund Ford Jr., Michael Whaley, Willie Brooks Jr., and Wright voting in favour. Commissioners Reginald Milton, Tami Sawyer, Turner and Jones voted against.

Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at [email protected], 901-529-2799 or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.