The Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher: “We don’t want to go to court every time there is an election year. ... But opening up the election commission building only for early voting is not fair." (Courtesy photo)

A voters’ rights coalition promised a legal showdown in court if all early voting sites are not open on day one for the May 3 election.

That scenario surfaced after the Shelby County Election Commission’s decision to limit early voting to a single Downtown site for the first two days of the 13-day early-voting period that begins April 13. The commission’s reasoning is tied to past turnout patterns and the coinciding Easter weekend.

“We don’t want to go to court every time there is an election year,” said the Rev. Earle Fisher of UpTheVote901. “But opening up the election commission building only for early voting is not fair.

“This tactic is being used to suppress the vote. And what we’re saying to the Shelby County Election Commission is either all early voting sites are open from the first day, or we will take further action.”

UpTheVote901, the Memphis Branch NAACP and the Black Clergy Collaborative (BCC) presented a united front during called a Wednesday afternoon press conference Downtown in front of the Shelby County Election Commission.

“Churches are located right there in our communities,” Fisher said. People must have access to church sites that Saturday before Easter. In 2018, we were able to increase the vote five percent.”

If the election commission does not open churches on April 13 for early voting, litigation is “on the table,” said Fisher.

Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips said she also wants higher turnout of voters.

Linda Phillips

“We do everything we can to increase voting,” said Phillips. “There are more than 580, 000 voters in Shelby County. We’re lucky if we get 10 percent to come out. I would be thrilled if we got to 10 percent.”

Phillips said the decision was made not to open churches until after Easter because people are with their families and not really thinking about voting.

“These pastors are saying, ‘We want our churches open from day one,’” said Fisher. “And the election commission is saying, ‘To hell with you.’ We say Linda Phillips cannot make a decision for the Black church community.”

“Open our churches on April 13,” the Rev. Dr. J. Lawrence Turner, pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church. (Courtesy photo)

Dr. J. Lawrence Turner, pastor of Mississippi Blvd. Christian Church and president of the Black Clergy Collaborative, said, “Mississippi Boulevard has always been an early voting site. …

“We were never asked about opening on April 13. A decision was made for us. And we are saying, ‘Open our churches on April 13.’”

Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner Jr., who also serves as Memphis Branch NAACP president, said, “I just don’t see why we wouldn’t open up Abundant Grace and ATOP (Anointed Temple of Praise).”

Memphis Branch NAACP President Van Turner Jr. said court action is an option. (Courtesy photo)

Abundant Grace Fellowship in Whitehaven and Anointed Temple of Praise in Hickory Hill were among the top early voting sites in 2020. Of the 26 designated early voting sites, 20 are churches.

Turner said the NAACP will consider the option of filing suit to open the churches for early voting.

“This is a call to action,” said the Rev. Tameka Greer. “We’re asking everyone to call the Shelby County Election Commission at 901-222-1200 and tell them we want churches open from day one of early voting.”

NAACP Executive Director Vickie Terry said the downtown location is not accessible to many.

“We need to make voting convenient and accessible for all people,” said Terry. “I had to pay $5 to park downtown for half an hour. That’s a lot of money for some who just want to exercise their right to vote.”

Fisher called the cost to park a “poll tax.”

As the early voting site schedule stands, five additional locations will open Saturday before Easter Sunday.

They are:

  • Glenview Community Center,
  • Dave Wells Community Center (North Memphis),
  • Agricenter International at Shelby Farms,
  • Arlington Safe Room,
  • and Baker Community Center in Millington.