Wednesday, July 20, 2011


It's election season in Nashville, when our Mayor, Vice-Mayor and city Council are campaigning -especially the and those running to fill one of five At-Large seats or a contested race in one of the 34 districts represented on the Metro Council. Drama and turn-out are expected to be light but tension will still be high, not only for those involved in campaigns, but also for those people working the elections.

Election administration is a big job with a lot of moving pieces.  In Metropolitan Nashville/Davidson County there are 172 precincts staffed with a minimum of 4 election officials per precinct (larger precincts have more.) Base pay for a long day of work is $145. They all stay the entire time polls are open to the public from 7 am-7 pm as well as witness the opening and closing of their precinct's machines.  At many precincts, poll workers and their officers are political icons in their own right. In the precinct where I vote, our former Councilman of 20+ years runs the show.  Because I know how many people ask me who I think they should vote for, at each election since I served on the Council, I wonder how many people look to him for guidance too. By law he must be neutral in his work as election officer. As a long-time public servant, I'm sure he is.

Poll-watchers help safeguard the election process. I am coordinating a team of non-partisan observers again this election.  Since I first began poll-watching as part of a 2006 League of Women Voter's study on voting integrity, I found that poll-watching was a satisfying, valuable grassroots activity. Tennessee statute defines the role and numbers of poll watchers permitted to observe the election process. It states they may be appointed by each political party, each candidate in a general or primary election, any citizen’s organization interested in a question on the ballot, and any citizen’s organization interested in preserving the purity of elections and in guarding against abuse of the elective franchise. That would be the League of Women Voters - Nashville.

We pin on our official name-tags/credentials, our LWV buttons and become flies on the wall at a sampling of precincts. Volunteers scan their check-lists, looking for all the ways voters can be denied access to elections, influenced, or assisted within the law. We record when there are machinery problems, change or address or provisional voter requests. We like to think that our presence helps create a culture of honesty. In my experience, good people work at the polls. They are also, by law, disproportulately partisan.

Even though county tax-payers fund election operations, state governance and its two primary parties run and operate our elections. Read the statute Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-13-206 and see for yourself.  Democrats can deny a winner her place on the ballot in a county-funded primary election. Republicans fill the majority of seats in all county election commissions (Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-12-103) & coordinate election decisions, oversee conflicts and purchase voting machines. The General Assembly's majority party appoints them, along with the Elections Coordinator who works for its Secretary of State. Independent voters have no place in the process.

Still, non-partisan participation plays an important role in elections. Where offered, it is a place to serve where winning is not the sum game.  Election integrity is. Election observers count.  If you're interested in getting involved in poll-watching, call or leave a message here. Learn what I mean when I describe the "culture of elections."  It's a large, complex organization with a lot of moving parts. We need to be sharp to keep up with them all.

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