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Choice of Agricenter as lone early voting location causes stir

The Shelby County Election Commission is taking heat from Shelby County Democrats steaming over the decision to make the Agricenter the only early voting location open during the first few days that ballots can be cast.

“It’s a willful blindness,” Corey Strong, Shelby County Democratic Party chairman, said. “It’s as if we are more concerned about justifying numbers on a page.”

Nearly a month out from the Aug. 2 election, the commission released its list of locations for early voting, which runs from July 13 through July 28. Five new locations across the county were added to help accommodate voter influx while taking the burden off other locations.

On the list, the Agricenter was listed at the only place open during the first five days of early voting.

Getting from Downtown to the Agricenter is a 20-mile drive, roughly 35 minutes in average traffic. From Whitehaven High School on Elvis Presley Blvd., the drive also would take about 35 minutes.

Public transportation to the Agricenter also can be daunting, critics of the election commission’s decision said.

“Access is not about where you live” Strong said. “We don’t need to disadvantage other people to open new locations.”

Linda Phillips, administrator for the Shelby County Election Commission, said the Agricenter was selected to be the only location open during the first days of early voting on the basis of cost effectiveness, heavy voter influx from select sites and lack thereof from others.

“Places like Abundant Grace, Bellevue were full,” Phillips said. “Parking was a mess, people were waiting in line, no place to put new machines or staff.”

Meanwhile on the other side of town, Phillips said numbers showed extremely low turnout.

“I had workers playing cards because it was as if one voter would come in every hour,” Phillips said.

“No one asked them to be more efficient,” Strong said.

According to data collected by the Shelby County Election Commission, there were 504,270-plus registered voters in Shelby County as of June 2018. Phillips said 40,335 people voted countywide during the May primary.

“Most people don’t tend to vote early until the last day,” Phillips said.

Strong told The New Tri-State Defender he understands the intent of the election commissions’ move, adding,  however, that it’s showing the potential to do more harm than good.

“If you close one precinct where 10 people vote, what are the chances of those 10 voting at all?” Strong said.

London Lamar, president of the Tennessee Young Democrats and a candidate for State House District 91, viewed the commission’s decision as voter suppression.

“Everybody has the right to access an early voting center on the first day of vote,” she said.

Lamar asserted that those who live in the vicinity of the Agricenter tend to vote Republican, which Phillips acknowledges.

“Republicans are scared they could lose this election, which could lead to losses in the state election,” Lamar said.

Republican leaders in Shelby County think otherwise.

“It’s a non-issue,” Lee Mills, Shelby County Republican Party chairman, said of the Agricenter’s designation as the lone early-voting site during the opening days. “Nobody is being disenfranchised. …

“What about it when it was downtown?” Mills added. “Nobody was screaming disenfranchisement then.”

Conceding that some people might not be able to make it to the Agricenter, Mills said, “It doesn’t prevent anyone from voting a few days later.”

Phillips told The New Tri-State Defender the early-voting schedule may not be set in stone. The election commission is set to meet June 29 at 4 p.m. at its site on Mullins Station Rd. That meeting comes with the possibility that commissioners could revisit the early voting times and locations.

“Just keep the polls open as they were in May, and you can see more voter turnout,” Lamar said. “Isn’t that what we want?”

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