Comptroller To Audit Election Commission

Jul 27, 2012

"[R]ecent issues are just the latest in a series of errors in the Shelby County Election Commission stretching back at least a decade. Nearly every election cycle in the county in recent memory has been plagued by a myriad of errors and complaints of wrongdoing.”

So goes a strongly worded letter from Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett and coordinator of elections Mark Goins to comptroller Justin Wilson. That letter requests an audit of the Shelby County Election Commission administration.

More than 1,000 people received the wrong ballot during early voting, which ends tomorrow. That means those people voted in a district they did not live in, and they didn’t get to vote in their own district.

“We certainly agree that it [an audit] would be appropriate,” said Shelby County Election Commission Chairman Robert Meyers. “We intend to cooperate.”

The incorrect ballots appear to be connected to a recent redistricting. After that redistricting, employees at the election commission had to update their voter rolls. This is done on computers and is incredibly technical. Meyers estimates five employees at the commission are qualified to do the work.

“In the process of making those changes the election commission made some mistakes,” Meyers said.

There were also voters in an area annexed by Collierville last year that were not listed as residents. Questions related to municipal schools did not appear on those voters' ballots.

“This used to not be happening” said Douglas Jones. Jones is the co-author of Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count?  and a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa.

There’s a computer science joke that Jones thinks is funny, but also thinks might explain what went awry. The joke goes like this—in the old days, a good clerk could make one clerical error every five minutes. Now, a good clerk and a computer can make 1,000 clerical errors every minute.

“It’s really true,” Jones said.

Jones says most of the computer software used to run elections focuses almost entirely on one question—is it a nice experience for the voter in the voting booth? This software doesn’t consider the experience of the people running the election. Jones says a lot of the software used to administer elections is clunky.

“There are some software systems that are just awful,” Jones said, “that invite clerical error.”