Shelby County Commission scrambling to move millions to purchase new voting machines

Updated: Feb. 19, 2020 at 4:31 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Shelby County Commissioners said Wednesday they’re being forced to move money to fund new voting machines in time for this fall’s presidential election. The last-minute effort comes after the initial plan to pay for the machines through capital improvement funds hit a major roadblock.

Last week, county attorney Marcy Ingram revealed a 50-year-old provision would require a county-wide referendum vote for county officials to be able to purchase new voting machines with capital improvement dollars.

“It’s really critical we get the funding in place by this Monday that will not require a referendum,” said Mark Billingsley, Shelby County Commission Chairman.

Billingsley said commissioners are exploring their funding options quickly. The leading thought at this time includes moving roughly $7.2 mllion from an emergency fund to pay for the new voting machines. It’s expected the state of Tennessee will reimburse $2.4 million.

If commissioners wanted to buy the machines with capital improvement funds, as initially planned, they’d have to put the issue to voters.The referendum would delay the purchase date, likely missing November’s election.

“We have an election commission that is in charge of the election. However we were not informed until the 11th or 12th hour how the funding mechanism would have to be approved if we went to a bond issue,” said Billingsley, “I don’t think any of the commissioners want to point fingers, but what we do want to do is have a new voting process in place before the presidential election.”

Before the funding issue surfaced, some county commissioners had been at odds with the election commission in recent weeks over the type of machines to be purchased.

At their last full meeting, the commission narrowly approved a resolution calling for the election commission to use a hand marked paper ballot system.

Shelby County Administrator of Elections Linda Phillips said hand marked paper ballots are too expensive and could cost one million dollars in printing and staffing annually. Phillips is advocating for a ballot marking device system which prints each voter’s choices on thermal paper. Phillips said despite the Shelby County Commission being the funding body, the Shelby County Election Commission has the final say on what type of voting system is selected.

Phillips was out of town and not at the commission meeting Wednesday.

“We are encouraged by the efforts of the County Commission to find a source of funding that will allow us to move forward with the purchase of new voting equipment. The Commissioners seem committed to making this happen,” she wrote in a statement, “They demonstrated that they understand the urgency of providing funding for the new equipment in order for us to use it later this year. Implementation of the new machines requires design of training material for staff and poll workers as well as voter education.”

Commissioners are expected to finalize the funding for the machines at Monday night’s meeting.

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