The Shelby County Democratic Party and Myron Lowery have asked Chancellor JoeDae L. Jenkins to hold the Shelby County Election Commission and Executive Director Linda Phillips in contempt for opening one of its early-voting polling places 40 minutes late on Saturday, according to a petition filed Monday.
Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church was supposed to be opened at 10 a.m. Saturday for early voting, but was not opened until about 10:40 a.m. according to the petition.
The petition said it took calls to the election commission and a message sent out over social media to reach Commissioner Norma Lester, who contacted Deputy Administrator Joe Young to open the Mississippi Boulevard site.
In a written statement, Phillips said the late opening of Mississippi Boulevard was human error.
“This unfortunate incident was caused by the human error of one person, the officer at the Mississippi Boulevard Church Polling Location,” Phillips said in the statement. “The officer told us she had gotten confused about what time she was supposed to be there to open the polling site.
“We responded immediately, and voters were able to wait inside the building until the officer had things up and running,” she said.
The petition asks that the commission be compelled to show cause why it should not be held in contempt for the incident and that a hearing be set on the matter. The 14-day early voting period began Friday.
Phillips said each polling location has one officer. That person is responsible for the actual opening of the poll site.
“As is the case with any institution or business, an employee who is late or doesn’t show up to work can cause an issue,” she said.
“It’s quite a stretch to try to turn an honest mistake made by one of our temporary employees into some sort of conspiracy theory,” Phillips said. “Our goal is to serve all the people of Shelby County and make sure they are able to vote. We remain committed to that.”
Corey Strong, chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party, said the burden is on the commission to meet the requirements as they were set out by the court.
“As of July 27 the Shelby County Democratic Party has taken the responsibility to hold the Election Commission accountable for the entire election season,” Strong said. “If they fall short of the court’s orders, we’re going to make sure it’s put on the record and discussed legally so that they are not only currently held accountable but held accountable in the future.”
The petition asks that the commission be held in contempt as an entity and that its members be held in contempt individually in the matter.
In a July 10 hearing, the chancellor ruled that Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church be one of five voting sites to open last Friday, July 13. The ruling was in response to combined lawsuits filed by the Shelby County Democratic Party and the Memphis Branch NAACP. The two groups took issue with aspects of the commission’s previous plan, including opening the Agricenter as the only venue for early voting for the first few days of early voting and the choice of new sites. The assertion was that the plan essentially disenfranchised African-American voters in the inner city.
Monday’s request for a contempt citation against the commission said the late opening at Mississippi Boulevard was willful and deliberate, voluntary and intentional, and was “wanton and in disregard of the rights of the citizens of Shelby County, Tennessee to exercise their right to vote protected by the Tennessee and United States Constitutions.”
In the initial ruling, five sites were ordered to be open Friday, July 13, including Mississippi Boulevard. The others were Abundant Grace Fellowship Church, Dave Wells Community Center, New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church and the Shelby County Election Commission’s Operations Center.
The remaining 22 early-voting sites open today, July 17.
Early voting ends July 28 and Election Day is August 2.