Shelby County Election Commission members were in the hot seat amid controversy regarding early-voting locations. (Photo: Ariel Hall)

When early voting opens for the Aug. 2 election, registered voters can choose to cast ballots at one of three locations – Abundant Grace Fellowship Church at 1574 E Shelby Dr., New Bethel Baptist Church at 7786 Poplar Pike and at 980 Nixon Dr., the site of the Shelby County Election Commission Operations Center.

Those three locations will be the only options during the first four days of the early-voting window, which opens July 13 and extends through July 28. That was not the case before the election commission met in an emotion-heavy special session on Friday afternoon.

Going in, one site – the Agricenter – had been designated as the sole location for voting during the initial four-day period before satellite sites open in various parts of the city and county. Word of that sole designation triggered indignation by many local Democrats, with some complaining of voter suppression by the Republican-majority election commission.

“Its not about the parties,” said commissioner Norma Lester, a Democrat, who serves as secretary. “We are trying to do a give and take. If we want to make a demand, they have the right to do so as well.”

The Agricenter is a 20-mile drive, roughly 35 minutes in average traffic, from Downtown and getting there by public transportation is a multi-hour journey. Those who live in the vicinity tend to vote Republican. The election commission office downtown had been the only designated location for the initial early-voting period.

Add to that pot of elements the uptick in turnout of Democrats in the May Primary election and the elements were there for the expressions of concern about voter manipulation. Election commission officials had 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.

The Agricenter is out as a location for the first days of early voting. Notably, the Abundant Grace area now designated tends to draw Democrats and the New Bethel location tends to draw Republicans.

Unhappy Democrats were the bulk of the crowd at Friday’s election commission session. The floor was opened for public comment prior before commissioners took action.

“This decision is unneeded. It’s not like anyone was having trouble getting to the polls,” said David Cambron, president of the Germantown Democrat Party. “It looks a little weighted to help one side by opening the Agricenter as an early voting venue.”

Bretran Thompson said, “You have confused the hell out of (registered voters). … They are afraid their rights are being taken away from them.”

Theryn C. Bond, Shelby County Democrat’s Human Rights Coalition chairwoman, detailed her four-hour bus ride to the Agricenter to illustrate the inconvenience that the Agricenter location would have on transit-dependent voters that live in the inner city.

“I got up at 6:30 this morning because my adrenaline was pumping in preparation for the bus ride that I took. I began my journey at the corner of Raines and Deerland at 11:15 a.m., by 11:34 I was at the nearest bus stop on Parkrose Ave and Ford Ave. I then took the 39 Downtown, where I waited 15-20 minutes because the bus was running late,” she said.

“Then I got on the 50 to go out to Germantown. From there I waited an hour to catch the 82 to then go the Agricenter. The total time would be four hours. The route from the south side of town is not conducive and it is totally inappropriate for the first and only voting polling location to be located at the Agricenter.”

After the election commission action on Friday, some still were unhappy.

Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Corey Strong was among those who wanted the commission to open all early voting sites during the whole early-voting period.

Said Strong, “The fix is in.”

There will be 26 early voting sites, with the remaining 23 opening on July 18. That total of 26 reflects the addition of five new sites: Arlington Safe Room, the Church of the Annunciation (Cordova), Compassion Church (Germantown), Second Baptist Church (East Memphis) and Whitehaven’s Solomon Temple Missionary Baptist Church