Thursday, May 27, 2010

Early Voting to be Restored!

While it is not a done deal until the Metro Council passes the budget, it looks like early voting is to be restored in Davidson County.

At the Budget and Finance Committee meeting of the Metro Council on Tuesday evening, the Election Committee requested $52,000 to fund five additional early voting sites for a period of six days for the August election. The budget and Finance Committee voted to add the funds to the “wish list.” No one on the committee opposed the move. Also, Budget and Finance Chairman Ronnie Stein said that the request had overwhelming support in the council. There is every reason to believe the funds will be in the final budget document. After the council has completed all of the budget hearings, the council will then develop a substitute budget which will replace the Mayors budget and then the council will vote on the substitute budget. The Council must pass the budget by June 30th or the Mayor’s budget becomes law.

With the addition of the five new early voting sites Metro will still have fewer sites than normal and will have far fewer sites than the 21 early voting sites that comparably sized Shelby County will have and fewer than the nine sites that smaller Knox county will have but it is a great improvement over the one site the Election Commission had planned for August.

The reason Metro was going to only have one early voting site is because that is all the Election Commission requested. When the mayor develops his budget to present to the council, the mayor first ask each department to present a budget to the mayors office and then the mayor holds hearings on the budget of each department. The Election commission only asked for funding for the one early voting site in their request to the Mayor. Instead of requesting funding for the early voting sites, the Election Commission asked for a pay raise for poll workers.

While it would be nice to increase the pay for poll workers, what Nashville currently pays their poll workers is pretty much in line with what other cities in Tennessee pay them. Many people work the polls out of civic duty and while the modest increase in pay would be nice, it is doubtful that that would have done much to increase the number of people willing to serve as poll officials. Since no one in Metro got a raise this year and it was known no one would be getting a raise, it did not seem wise to request an increase in poll workers pay this year. The mayor did not approve the pay increase and as a result, neither poll workers raises nor early voting was funded.

It only became public knowledge about six weeks ago that only one early voting site was scheduled for August. Many of us have been working since then to change that decision. The Election Commission was lobbied to change their position and urged to request early voting. The chairman of the Election Commission initially resisted changing his position and defended having only one early voting site. Unfortunately the Election Commission which has a Republican Chairman and a 3 to 2 majority on the Election Commission did not seem to appreciate the need for early voting and was not responsive to the Republican request for early voting.

This year in Davidson County is the first time since reconstruction that there is a chance for Republicans to take offices in Nashville. There is a lot of excitement on the Republican side. There are ten active candidates seeking the nomination to oppose Congressman Jim Cooper. Also, all of the interest in the Governors race is on the Republicans side where three major candidates are seeking the nomination while on the Democratic side there is only one lackluster candidate. If there is ever going to be a Republican year in Davidson County, this is it.

Republicans take advantage of early voting more than do Democrats, so there is a Republican advantage to having early voting. It is disappointing that the leadership of the Election Commission resisted supporting early voting. We should have early voting simply because people have become accustomed to it and to take it away will suppress voter turn out. We should have it because it is the right thing to do. Also however, Republicans should support it because it would benefit Republicans. I am not sure there is any advantage of having a Republican majority on the Election Commission if they do not represent the interest of the voters and consider the interest of the Party. I think maybe a Democratic dominated Election Commission would have been easier to persuade.

Following it becoming known that there would be only one early voting site, activist sprang into action. At most of the nine Republican breakfast groups, I spoke on the issue and urged people to lobby their councilmen. I personally emailed or called the Vice Mayor and the five at-large Council members and my district councilman and spoke to other council members I know personally. The leaders of the various Republican Breakfast groups lobbied the council and worked to motivate the members of their breakfast groups to do so. Other activist also joined the fight including the 9-12 groups and others.

While the effort to restore early voting was led by conservative activist, the push to fund early voting was non partisan. Kathleen Starnes, Chairman of the Davidson County Republican Party spoke to her counterpart in the Democratic Party and he also publicly advocated a restoration of early voting. Many of the non-partisan groups such as neighborhood groups helped spread the word. Council members heard from their constituents. If there had not been an effort to lobby the Election Commission and the Metro Council, early voting would not have been restored.

While many good people, both Republican and Democrat, worked to restore early voting there were some disappointments. Along with the Republicans on the Election Commission who disappointed me I am also disappointed in the League of Women Voters who refused a request to join the fight and advocate for early voting and I am disappointed in the Tennessean which completely ignored this issue.

I would like to thank all of those Councilmember who responded to the desire of the people to have early voting. All of the members I spoke to were concerned and supportive and they thanked me for bringing this issue to their attention. Moving money around in the budget is a difficult task. To fund one thing means money has to be taken from somewhere else. It is easier to just accept what the mayor proposes rather than make too many changes and I realize that this is a tight budget year. I commend the councilmember’s who advocated for early voting and who are doing the hard work of developing an alternative budget.

Special recognition needs to go to Kathleen Starnes, chairman of the Davidson County Republican Party, who worked behind the scene and publicly to persuade the Elections Commission to reverse its stand and support early voting. I would like to commend the Republican breakfast group leaders who motivated people in their groups to contact their councilmember. If it had not been for the grassroots effort early voting would not have been restored.

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