No Small Stuff (cont.): Vendor Gives Tennessee County Closed-Primary Pollbooks in Open Primary


[Image courtesy of toledodentistnews]

Continuing in the vein of “there is no small stuff” in elections, here’s a story from Davidson County (Nashville), TN where voters in the August primary didn’t always get the ballot they were expecting, acording to the Tennessean:

[M]achines in 60 of Davidson County’s 160 precincts didn’t always work … last month. Some voters, including Sheriff Daron Hall, an elected Democrat, have said the electronic poll books gave them Republican ballots if poll workers didn’t ask them which primary they wanted to vote in. The problem has drawn howls of outrage from Democrats, including Metro Council members and U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper.

The problem, apparently, was that the county’s vendor failed to program electronic pollbooks to allow for the fact that the Volunteer State conducts “open primaries” where a voter can choose which party’s ballot to cast – as opposed to a “closed primary” where voters must register as a member of a party in order to cast a ballot in that party’s primary.

Unfortunately, the mistake creates a situation where critics can claim that the vendor is either engaging in illicit activity or simply incompetent:

Metro Councilman Bo Mitchell, who is running as a Democrat for a state House seat, said the situation arose from one of two scenarios, neither of them good. He said [the vendor’s] success as a business depends on making Democrats and Republicans feel comfortable with the mechanics of voting, so he thinks the company was instructed to program the default to the party in power in Tennessee right now.

“Someone had to tell them how to program those machines in that fashion,” Mitchell said. “We’re still waiting for the Election Commission to tell us who. They’re not going to alienate potentially half of their business by favoring one party or the other.”

But if [the vendor] was at fault, “I don’t know why we’re doing business with them,” he added.

The big problem, of course, is that terminating the county’s relationship with the vendor would be difficult and expensive – not to mention disruptive so close to Election Day. Davidson County election official Albert Tieche may be unhappy – “I had a great reputation until they do a programming change,” he said – but for now the county and the vendor are stuck with one another.

Another problem, though, is the danger of overreaction – and based on current reports that could be occurring in Davidson County. For now, the county is not planning to use its electronic pollbooks in November, even though every voter (regardless of party) will get the same ballot. In some ways, that decision is understandable, but I’m not sure that treating electronic pollbooks as a sunk cost necessitates forgoing their potential benefits on Election Day.

In other words, while it’s abundantly clear that someone needs to held accountable for Davidson County’s pollbook problems, I’m not sure it’s fair that “someone” is Davidson County voters.

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