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TNDP: Election Problems Sen. Ketron’s Fault

Press Release from Tennessee Democratic Party; Aug. 19, 2010:

MURFREESBORO – State Sen. Bill Ketron shoulders much of the blame for recent election blunders that call into question the intention of the Murfreesboro lawmaker and Republican colleagues who fired election administrators across the state and delayed a law meant to improve elections.

Reported election mishaps in Rutherford, Davidson, Hawkins, Maury and Shelby counties have revealed troubling problems in Tennessee and the Republicans responsible for conducting those elections, according to Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester.

“Mr. Ketron and the Republican leadership in the General Assembly should apologize to all Tennesseans for mishandling elections in this state,” Forrester said. “People, regardless of their party affiliation, expect their votes to be counted correctly.

“Using wrong voter files, miscounting ballots, and not even opening voter precincts at all like over in Rutherford County do not provide many of us with confidence in the election process, which is the bedrock of our democracy. It appears the Republicans responsible for running our elections are either grossly incompetent or trying to manipulate election results.”

Ketron sponsored the bill that delayed until 2012 the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act, which required all county election commissions to make the switch to optical scan machines and paper ballots before the November 2010 elections. More than $30 million in federal funding has been set aside to purchase the new machines.

“If we had those machines in place earlier this month and Republicans hadn’t fired so many experienced election administrators, we likely would not have encountered as many problems,” Forrester said. “Republicans flat out lied when they said the purchase of these new machines would be a financial burden to county governments.”

Republicans took control of local election commissions in all 95 counties after the November 2008 elections, firing many county election administrators soon thereafter and threatening to fire Rutherford County Election Administrator Hooper Penuel, as well.

A federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of Penuel and several other county election administrators in Tennessee contending Republicans violated their constitutional rights by conspiring to treat their jobs as political patronage. Penuel has settled his claim with the Rutherford County Election Commission and will retire at the end of the year.

“Conducting fair and accurate elections is not a partisan issue,” Forrester said. “It is at the core of this country’s foundation. Instead of disenfranchising voters we should be encouraging as many citizens as we can to get involved in the process. Mr. Ketron appears to be more worried about playing partisan politics and taking care of special interests than he is about governing responsibly.”

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Democratic Chair Faults GOP for Election Foul-Ups

The leader of the Tennessee Democratic Party says he’s concerned with all the mistakes and inconsistencies that arose in the primary elections the state and local governments administered earlier this month.

And legislative Republicans are mostly to blame for the snafus, Chip Forrester told reporters at the Capitol Wednesday.

The problems could potentially have been avoided by requiring that votes be recorded on paper ballots and entered into a scanner — instead of almost entirely on computer systems, the party chairman suggested.

“We would probably not necessarily be in this situation with some certainly if we had that,” he said. “And it is a disappointment that Republicans have not seen that this is a tool that will be useful for counting votes accurately and properly in the election process.”

Under the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act, passed in 2008, counties were supposed to have purchased ballots and optical scanning voting machines to fully embrace the new ballot-counting practice by November.

Driven by Republicans who said in January that cash-strapped counties lacked the money during an economic downturn to buy new equipment, the Legislature voted to delay implementation until 2012.

The delay-measure, HB614, easily passed both chambers with a combined House-Senate vote of 95-30 — with 29 Democrats and one Republican against it.

The Voter Confidence Act also required the state use advanced ballot-counting technology that hadn’t yet been developed, said state Sen. Bill Ketron, who sponsored the legislation to stall the law’s start date. He said he didn’t want to make counties “throw out the machines they bough a few short years ago” to buy new ones.

“The delay was to wait until 2012 to give the manufacturers of the machines time to catch up,” said the Murfreesboro Republican. “I think everybody who voted for (the act) thought those machines would be here, but they’re not.”

The new process is meant to create additional set of checks and balances to verify all votes cast are counted in each election, he said.

Several races in this month’s primary election ended with razor-thin margins, giving the slightest ballot-counting discrepancies the potential to change the outcome of a contest.

Case in point is the Nashville state Senate race between incumbent Sen. Douglas Henry and his challenger Jeff Yarbro.

Tallies last left the senator 11 votes ahead of Yarbro, although the unofficial vote totals have changed four times since election day.

The Democratic Party’s executive committee will decide Monday night, after Davidson County certifies the election results, whether to request a recount.

Other electoral rough patches included Davidson County officials discovering a voting machine that had never been counted, a missed early-election voting day in Rutherford County and a previous election’s votes loaded into Shelby County voting machines.

Even if the Legislature hadn’t postponed the new requirements, Tennessee Secretary of State officials maintain, these kinds of mistakes still could have happened.

“In every election there is the potential for mistakes to be made, particularly human error,” said Blake Fontenay. “Even if you moved to paper ballots, you’d still have the potential for issues to arise.”