Election commission seeks funding middle ground with Mayor Harris

After Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris called for withholding $5 million from the Shelby County Election Commission on May 21, he received both support and pushback from county officials. He’s now reached a middle ground with the commission.

Former Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s administration had proposed this $5 million for the fiscal year 2020 budget in addition to the Election Commission’s $2 million from the county general fund. The $5 million was intended to buy new voting machines in time for the 2020 presidential election.

Last Thursday, Suzanne Thompson, election commission spokesman, said most of the $5 million would go toward new machines, but some of it would buy new digital scanners to process paper absentee ballots.

“Optical scanners, hardly anybody uses them anymore,” Thompson said. “Now it’s a digital thing, and they are much more efficient and faster.”

She also said the optical scanners were often the reason for delays in election results.

Luttrell’s administration’s proposal was nonbinding, and Mayor Harris has threatened to pull back this funding to pressure the commission to review his election process misgivings, including concerns about early voting and election results reporting.

Both Shelby County Commissioner Mick Wright and Election Administrator Linda Phillips publicly objected. In a Wednesday Facebook post, Wright wrote, “I respectfully disagree with this decision because the machines are old and are getting past their useful life and beyond the phase in which they can be properly maintained.”

Phillips told The Commercial Appeal, “The equipment is at the end of its lifespan.” She added, “At some point it has to be updated. I know it’s expensive. My sense from the previous commission was that it was a priority of theirs.”

On May 22 The Daily Memphian reported that the commission lowered its capital funds request to $2.5 million and began creating an ad hoc committee to address Harris’ concerns.

In that story, Phillips said the machines could be bought for closer to $9 million if the county now approves that reduced funding. She believes that, if the county spends $2.5 million this year, it would likely fund the remaining money in fiscal year 2021.

Most of the commissioners attended Thursday’s community budget meeting, the first of two such meetings planned. Wright attended and said, “I think it’s vital that we go forward with this. Our machinery for tallying ballots is old. I am concerned that if we don’t make that investment now we could be at a place where our system fails.”

Commissioner Eddie S. Jones Jr. said he believes many internal problems must be fixed to restore the integrity of elections. He led the budget meeting and responded to the election commission’s actions by saying, “That’s a better compromise than what we had already previously approved.”

Budget amendments, possibly about election commission funding, are expected to be introduced at the next budget hearing on May 29.

Mayor Harris and his office were unavailable for comment.