NAACP calls for answers on ballots not counted in recent Hamilton County election

NAACP sent a letter to the state and the Hamilton County election coordinator to get answers on why some votes were not counted.

The Chattanooga branch of the NAACP says that they have “grave concerns” about an election error in Hamilton County that left the ballots of 43 voters uncounted in the Aug. 2 election.

According to NAACP officials, there has been little information given on the problem that involves a shift in voter lines.

The group sent a letter to Mark Goins, state election coordinator, and Kerry Steelman, Hamilton County election coordinator, asking for answers to a number of questions, asking that they are answered prior to the certification of the election.

The letter was signed by Dr. Eleanor Woods, President of the Chattanooga Branch NAACP; Marcia Johnson-Blanco, Co-director of the Voting Rights Project Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Ezra Rosenberg, Co-director of the Voting Rights Project Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Dr. Sekou Franklin, Ph.D.; and Democracy Nashville-Democratic Communities and reads as follows:

Dear Mr. Steelman and Mr. Goins:

The Chattanooga Branch NAACP, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and several of our community partners based in Nashville write to express grave concerns regarding the more than 300 voters who were apparently placed within the wrong voting districts as a result of the redrawing of Hamilton County’s district lines in either 2013 or 2015.

We are further alarmed that 43 of these impacted voters who cast early ballots will not have those ballots counted and that the County Election Commissioners stated that nothing could be done about the disenfranchisement of these voters.

The Chattanooga Branch NAACP is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. Its mission is to ensure the political, education, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination. The Chattanooga Branch NAACP encourages and facilitates nonpartisan voter registration drives to promote civic participation, and further promotes and defends voting rights.

As part of its core mission to defend voting rights, the Chattanooga Branch NAACP identified and drew attention to the redistricting issue that disenfranchised a significant number of voters in Hamilton County the day following Tennessee’s Primary Election. The Chattanooga Branch then involved the Lawyers’ Committee in its efforts to seek more transparency from the Hamilton County and Tennessee State Elections Commission regarding why the redistricting problem occurred and how long it has continued to disenfranchise voters in the County.

The Lawyers’ Committee is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to enlist the private bar’s leadership and resources in combating racial discrimination and the resulting inequality of opportunity. The Lawyers’ Committee is committed to ensuring that all voters have an equal and fair opportunity to participate in the political process. To that end, the Lawyers’ Committee leads the Election Protection Coalition which offers a voter hotline (866-OUR-VOTE) providing Americans from coast to coast with comprehensive voting information and a vehicle to report problems that arise on or before Election Day.

As we understand the facts, a 2013 or 2015 redistricting of Hamilton County shifted several geographic district boundaries, and the fact some voters were placed into the wrong voting districts was not uncovered until last week by the Tennessee State Election Commission.

According to news reports, two days before the primary election on July 31, the Tennessee State Election Commission informed Hamilton County election officials that a “discrepancy in lines was found when the state was doing some voter reports.”

In response, the County election officials held an emergency meeting and approved ballot changes for the impacted voters that were then sent to the State Commission for approval. According to news reports, the County officials told the media that “three new precincts had to be formed with a handful of voters in each.” County officials also identified 325 impacted voters – 43 of those voters cast early ballots and the remaining 242 voters were issued special ballots at the polls.

The County officials stated that the 43 early ballots would not count and there was nothing that they could do about the disenfranchisement of these voters.The reports concerning boundary discrepancies and early ballots not counting are alarming. Little information exists on how boundary discrepancies or the number of affected voters were determined in the first place, why 43 early ballots were not counted and what steps were taken to inform these voters that their votes were not counted, and the extent of the State Commission’s involvement in the County’s decision to create three new precincts and issue special ballots.

Moreover, little is known about the date that the redistricting occurred and how long voters have been casting votes in the wrong district and for the wrong officials. The fact that eligible voters’ ballots were potentially not counted for the past few years presents a larger problem that requires further investigation.

The State and County’s response to this problem has been less than transparent. The County has failed to provide any clarity regarding the full extent of the problem and on the ameliorative actions, if any, that were taken. In fact, neither the State nor the County issued a press release and news reports were scant. The Chattanooga Branch NAACP noted the lack of media coverage on this issue and election officials rebuffed attempts by our members to receive clarity on the full extent of events. Many questions remain unanswered and we ask that your office provide additional information.

Based on the above, we have a number of concerns regarding the primary elections held on August 2, not least of all is the lack of information provided by your office to the public regarding the problem. In order to ensure that we are able to ascertain the full extent of the problem so as to provide support for voters in of Hamilton County in the upcoming general election, we request that your offices provide detailed answers to the following questions:

1. How did your office accurately determine that only 325 voters were impacted by the redistricting? Is there a possibility that additional voters could have been impacted? What steps have you or your office taken to investigate this issue?

2. How did your office catch that district boundaries were shifted?

3. Can you provide the number of impacted voters broken down by the district in which they reside?

4. Can you provide a count of the impacted voters and a breakdown of those votes by those who voted early, absentee, by mail, and in person?

5. Can you provide numbers for total ballots that were counted? How many of each ballot type was not counted?

6. Based on the information in news reports, of the 43 early ballots that were not counted, were any of these voters informed that their vote was not going to count before voting was closed, and, if so, how? Were any of these voters informed that their ballots were not counted after voting was closed, and, if so, how?

7. What kind of special ballot was issued to the impacted voters? How many of the special ballots were counted?

8. What process did your office use to ensure that every eligible impacted individual’s ballot was counted?

9. What affirmative steps are your office taking to reduce the burdens on voters learning the status of their ballot?

10. Were impacted voters informed about the actions they must take, if any, in order to have their ballots counted?

11. Has your office determined when the redistricting error occurred; has your office launched an investigation into how many voters were affected each year since the boundary discrepancies changed either in 2013 or 2015?

12. How many district boundaries were changed geographically?

13. What was the population of each district prior to the boundaries being changed? What was the population of each district after the boundaries were changed in each subsequent year until the error was discovered last week?

14. Can you provide the number of registered voters in each district prior to the boundaries being changed? Can you provide the number of registered voters in each district after the boundaries were changed?

15. What instructions were provided to poll workers regarding the use of special ballots on Primary Day? What instructions were provided to poll workers following disclosure of the impacted voters? Were copies of any written instructions or revised protocols disseminated to voters on Primary Day? Were poll workers informed which voters were impacted and which voters should be issued special ballots, and, if so, how?

16. Were any news alerts issued on Primary Day? If so, where were these placed and in what languages? What other steps were taken to communicate with impacted voters on Election Day?

17. Can you provide all documents (including email, text messages, telephone conversations, letters sent via post) that your office issued to the County officials concerning this issue?

18. What steps are your offices taking to prevent the recurrence of such a problem in future elections including the November midterms?

As you know, federal and state laws create obligations for informing voters whether any provisional or special ballots were counted. It is essential that voters have confidence in the electoral process and also critical that this kind of incident never happens again. To that end, we are requesting that you provide answers to our questions by Wednesday, August 15, 2018, before the date of official certification on August 20, 2018.

We are also requesting a meeting with you to discuss this matter and to determine what happened and what steps must be taken to prevent its recurrence. We look forward to hearing from you by Wednesday, August 15, 2018.

Please send your responses to Marcia Johnson-Blanco at mblanco@lawyerscommittee.org, Ezra Rosenberg at erosenberg@lawyerscommittee.org, Anson Asaka at aasaka@naacpnet.org, and Dr. Eleanor Woods at naacpchattanooga@epbfi.com. If you would like to set up a time to speak on the phone regarding this matter, please contact (202) 662-8319.

We thank you for your immediate attention to this important matter.