A mid-March press conference Downtown in front of the Shelby County Election Commission warned of legal action if African-American churches designated as voting sites were not opened for day one of early voting for the May 3 election.
The Election Commission did not act, according to the Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher of UpTheVote901, leaving the plaintiffs in a recently-filed Chancery Court lawsuit with “no choice” other than to put the dispute before the court.
“There was neither a phone call, nor email, or any attempt at all to reach out and discuss our grievances,” said Fisher. “And when you have an election commission that consistently disregards issues of equitable access for African-American communities to the vote, legal action is our only remedy, I’m afraid.”
The Memphis Branch NAACP and the Black Clergy Collaborative joined with UpTheVote901 to file the lawsuit last Thursday (March 31). The next day, Chancellor Gadson W. Perry, who was assigned the case, recused himself. All three local Chancellors are up before voters in August.
At issue is the call to have more voting locations open on the first two days of early voting for the May 3 County primaries. Only the Downtown Election Commission office (157 Poplar Ave.) is scheduled to be open on those days, with early voting set to run from April 13 through April 28. Other locations would open April 18, the Monday following Easter Sunday.
Calling it a form of “voter suppression” to only hold early voting at the Election Office, the trio of groups argues that the Election Commission is violating multiple state and federal laws.
During a conversation (April 1) with The New Tri-State Defender regarding the upcoming (April 7) Voter Ready Open House for Greater Awareness of Polling Place Changes, Linda Phillips, the Election Commission’s administrator, said she had not yet been legally served regarding the lawsuit and really could not comment.
However, Phillips did say, “The Election Commission always struggles with early voting when it intersects Holy Week … a very, very important week to many people and it’s hard to get staff. That’s the reason the Election Commission has for years not had early voting open during Holy Week.”
Tennessee law requires that one site be open, said Phillips.
“I went back to as far when the Election Commission was put in control by the Democratic Party. We have never had all early-voting sites open prior to Easter,” she said.
If a Chancery Court ruling calls for the opening of more early-voting locations on the first two days, Phillips said being able to make that happen would “depend a lot on when we get this information.
“The delivery schedule is already set. Our workers are already planning to work. We are in the middle of doing the testing we need to do. It would be very, very disruptive at this point.
“The Election Commission voted on these locations more than a month ago. Perhaps we could have made some adjustments. It’s not going to be easy at this point, if that is what the judge decides.”
The lawsuit seeks a ruling directing the Election Commission to open all churches that have traditionally been early voting sites.
“The Election Commission opened up five more sites (for 2022 elections),” said Fisher. “But none of them are in the communities where the highest number of Black, largely Democratic, voters reside. The busiest African-American voting precinct is Abundant Grace Church in Whitehaven. If you are trying to get more people to vote, surely this would be the first location you would open.”
Memphis Branch NAACP President Van Turner Jr. said he had hoped that the Election Commission would open church sites without litigation.
“We tried to explore other options,” said Turner. “We had hoped that in the end, legal action would not be necessary. However, as it stands, litigation is now our only option, it seems.”
Fisher said the “utter disregard” for pastors asking that their churches be opened is the height of contempt and disrespect. Phillips, he said, is “saving money where she has not been asked to save money. …
“The county will pay whatever the cost to have these churches open. … “This is about greater access to the vote, not saving money.”
(This story includes reporting by the TSD Newsroom.)