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The history of election trouble in Shelby County

Shelby County has a long history with issues, irregularities, and even legal challenges at the polls going back decades.

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Shelby County Election officials don't expect there will be any major problems Tuesday, or either at the polls or with ballots being counted - but we've heard that before. Shelby County has a long history with issues, irregularities, and even legal challenges at the polls going back decades.

Twenty years ago during the 2000 Presidential election, in Shelby County, the last person did not cast his vote until 9:30 p.m. at night. The reason?

Several hundred voters were routed to the election commission to cast their ballots due to confusion over voter registration. While it was chaotic that night in Shelby County, it was also hard to predict what would happen with the election across the nation.

It was Al Gore versus George Bush and the election problems in Shelby County were a small hiccup compared to what was happening in other parts of the country. Election results were so close that in Florida, there was a total ballot recount. For more than a month, Americans didn't know who the winner was.

"You'll remember it was Florida, where all those popular terms started surfacing - hanging chads, dimple chads, and swinging chads and all of that - that became part of our conversation because they were doing a hand recount of paper ballots," said Local 24 News political analyst Otis Sanford.

It was a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that finally declared Bush the winner. 

That election night was hardly unique. Elections in Shelby County have a had their own legal challenges. Over decades, we've seen lawsuits filed or claims of improprieties connected in almost every election cycle in Shelby County. 

Sanford said its par for the course.

"That's the nature of voting. There is always going to be something going on, there is always somebody who is going to be upset. There is always going to someone who is, someone complaining of something, that happened at the early voting site. Intimidation is an issue this year. Voter suppression is an issue this year," said Sanford.

RELATED: As early voting ends, the Shelby County Election Commission prepares for the big day - Election Day

RELATED: Worried your Tennessee absentee ballot won’t make it in time? You can drop it off at a specific post office in your county

"We've heard all our life about dead people voting - well we proved that they did," said Terry Roland, former Shelby County Commissioner.

Roland has firsthand experience about Shelby County elections going wrong. In 2005, he lost his state senate race against Ophelia Ford after a dead voter scandal.  A lawsuit and federal investigation eventually resulted in three poll workers being indicted for casting ballots in the name of dead voters.

In addition to dead people voting, Sanford said in Shelby County until 2010 or so, many of the legal challenges were connected to Democrats questioning machines and how ballots were counted because Republicans continued to win county elected positions

"The Democrats always said there was some shenanigans and some problems and there usually were. The election commission has always tried to minimize the problems, but they were problems none the less," said Sanford.

The problems were significant enough that in 2012, a state audit found the "election commission demonstrated and inability to conduct elections without significant inaccuracies." Despite that, the audit found, "no evidence of intentional misconduct or an intention to affect the election process or outcomes."

Since that audit, personnel and policy changes were put into place. Sanford said the past several elections, and so far this election, has run much smoother.

"Who knows what is going to happen tomorrow night. At least up until now, the Shelby County Election Commission has done a really good job," said Sanford.

Sanford hopes this year, we don't have a repeat of what happened two decades ago and the Presidential winner will be declared sooner rather than later.

"I don't think anybody in 2000 expected what happened. They thought, I think most people thought, that Al Gore was going to win the election. So, I don't think any was fixated on any real problems until they happened. This year, it is different - everybody is anticipating problems," said Sanford.

The Election Commission is considered an essential service, so we are able to issue and accept petitions at both locations. However, we urge citizens who do not need to file petitions to stay home and use our online services at GoVoteTN.com.

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