Shelby County Election Commissioner Bennie Smith (left) and the Rev. Dr. J. Lawrence Turner, founder/chair of the Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis, each pitched the necessity of being prepared to vote during the BCCM's recent candidate forum for Shelby County District Attorney General candidates. (Photos: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

Taking his text from the “Book of Elections,” Shelby County Election Commissioner Bennie Smith told those attending a recent district attorney candidate forum at Saint Andrew A.M.E. Church that passion was no substitute for preparation when it gets down to casting a ballot.

“We may be passionate about our politics, but it will require some skill to vote in this election,” said Smith, the commission’s secretary, regarding the County General Election and State/Federal Primary Election on Aug. 4.

“It is a lengthy ballot. There are a lot of changes and one of the greatest assets to an election is a well-informed electorate.”

Tuesday (July 5) is the deadline to register. U.S. citizens with a driver’s license or a photo ID issued by the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security can register at GoVoteTN.com. Or they can download an application and submit or postmark it to the county election commission office by Tuesday.

Early voting runs July 15-30, Monday through Saturday.

Tennessee’s deadline to request an absentee ballot is July 28. Officials are urging voters to act right away if they want to vote absentee. Those ballots must be returned by mail in time for the county election commission to receive them no later than the close of polls on Election Day.

At the candidate forum hosted by the Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis (BCCM), Smith sought to engage the audience as he emphasized voter preparation and awareness about “some information that I think all voters need to know.”

“So, if I can get a show of hands from the crowd if you know your precinct number. … Whoa. All right. Keep your hand up. … Now lower your hand if that precinct number is four digits. All right, so not many people lowered their hands and not many people raised their hands.”

Smith detailed that as a result of redistricting, “we changed everyone’s precincts. So, if you were fortunate enough to know your precinct and raise your hand, you very likely have the wrong one.”

What had been 300-plus precincts were reduced to 146, he said. “What that means for the electorate is that where you used to go and vote, that may not be the place anymore.”

Pivoting, Smith turned to senior citizens and paper ballots.

“Citizens age 60 and older, you are automatically eligible to request a paper ballot and vote by mail. This election, this is something that has not been rather publicized, so I’m definitely out letting the electorate know that.

“This particular election has more than 60 races on the ballot. You’re talking 8, 10, 15, 20 minutes standing at a machine to vote. So, if you don’t want to be a part of that, you can, if you’re 60 years or older, you can request that paper ballot. They’ll send it in the mail to you and you can sit in the comfort of your home and fill out … all 60-something races and mail it back.”

Noting that there are rules governing how ballots can be requested, Smith said he would be moving to get that information – and more – out to the electorate.

“I’m doing some initiatives where I can go out and do some type of question and answer where I can give information to the voters so they can be aware leading up to the election. And in closing, passion is not a substitute for skill.”

He directed the audience to his website – benniesmith.com.

“There’s going to be an election section and in that election section I’m going to post dashboards where you can look up your address and see what your old precinct was … and then see what your new precinct is, so you can be completely informed of this information.”

The Rev. Dr. J. Lawrence Turner, the senior pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church and BCCM’s founder and chair, echoed Smith’s appeal for voter awareness and engagement.

“Where the difference is made is not in sentiment. It’s in action,” said Turner. “And the action and the way that you express your voice is to show up by your early voting or on election day to vote.

On July 16, the second day of early voting for the August election at all early-voting locations, the Shelby County Election Commission and the Shelby County Voter Alliance will host the first Voter Ready Expo.

The expo will offer early voting, an opportunity to look up polling locations, a firsthand look at the new November voting machines and voter registration.

“This is an ideal time for voters to become more engaged in our election process,” said Linda Phillips, administrator of Elections for Shelby County. “The best way to ensure our elections are well-executed and truly reflect our community’s voice is by keeping our community informed of opportunities to participate in the process.”

The Voter Ready Expo on July 16 is set for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at all early voting locations.

(For more details and a list of early voting locations, visit shelbyvote.com. This story includes a report by the Associated Press.)


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