Shelby County leaders scrambling for Plan B after surprise announcement on purchase of new voting machines

Local Elections

MEMPHIS, Tenn. ( – After a surprise announcement Monday night that they’ll be no new voting machines in Shelby County this fall as expected, people are annoyed.

Now, county commissioners must figure out when to put a question on how to buy new machines on an upcoming voter referendum.

The Shelby County Election Commission will meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss the next steps.  

For supporters of new voter machines, the shocking development left them frustrated after years of problems with the current touch screen devices.

“It really puts Shelby County and our elections in a little bit of a tailspin,” Shelby County Commission Chairman Mark Billingsley said.

Billingsley was still reeling from the bombshell announcement Monday night, that there’d be no new voting machines for the November presidential election.

“I was hoping with the new voter machines and a new process, we could regain some voter confidence in Shelby County,” Billingsley said.

For years, Local 24 News has reported about the Shelby County touch screen voting machines malfunctioning in different ways at several precincts.

Monday, a county attorney found a loophole – a 1972 statute – which said to buy voting machines through general obligation bonds, requires a voter approved referendum.

“We are basically asking the citizens of Memphis, do you approve of what we are doing with your money? So in the end it’s more fair and more transparent,” Shelby County commissioner Van Turner said.

Beyond when the new machines will be bought, what kind of machines should be bought remains a divided topic. A narrow 7-6 Shelby County Commission majority supports paper ballots, compared to a system that scans marked paper ballots.

“I think paper ballots will restore confidence in the franchise. That’s why I’m supportive,” Turner said.

Shelby County Election Administrator Linda Phillips wasn’t available for comment Tuesday, but last week, she reiterated her support for optical scan machines.

“Paper ballot systems cost less to purchase up front, but over the life of the system will cost $14 to $15 million more,” Phillips said.

Even though the Shelby County Commission recommends what kind of voter machines it prefers, the Shelby County Election Commission has the final purchase say.

The voter machine referendum question is expected to be on either the August or November ballot.

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