Davidson County Election Commission issues incorrect ballots, settles lawsuit with ACLU

Nashville’s recent redistricting into three congressional districts caused issues for election mapping software during the midterm elections.

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Miguel Beristain

The Tennessee State Capitol, as photographed on July 28, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Miguel Beristain)

By Ben Arthur, Vanderbilt University

During early voting for the 2022 midterm elections, over 400 voters in Tennessee’s 5th, 6th and 7th Districts cast their ballots in the wrong congressional district due to errors from the Davidson County Election Commission. The ACLU of Tennessee sued state officials over the error on Nov. 4 and reached a settlement that day, allowing provisional ballots to be issued.

Many early voters in the 5th District, which includes Davidson County and Vanderbilt’s campus, incorrectly received ballots for the 6th District. The Davidson County Election Commission, which oversees elections in the 5th, 6th and 7th Districts, was not aware of the issue until the Associated Press alerted them to it on Nov. 1. Davidson County Elections Administrator Jeff Roberts cited errors in the state’s mapping software as the cause of the incorrect ballot allocation.

For much of the city’s history, Nashville has occupied one, primarily Democratic congressional district. The last time a Republican held the 5th District U.S. House of Representatives seat was in 1875. In February 2022, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and a Republican-controlled legislature divided Nashville into three congressional districts. This gerrymandering allegedly complicated the county’s mapping software, leading to homes along district lines receiving a ballot for the wrong district. In the 5th, 6th and 7th Districts, Republican candidates won a seat in the House. 

Junior and Vice President of Vandy Votes Bryce Emanuel said the incident affects voters’ ability to receive proper representation in government systems.

“We want to feel like we’re getting representation from somebody who represents the values that we want within the place that we live,” Emanuel said. “By having a situation like this, it impairs people getting their voices represented.”

As a result of the mapping software mistake, the ACLU of Tennesee and the League of Women Voters sued Roberts and other officials on Nov. 4, including Lee and Secretary of State Tre Hargett. The parties reached an agreement on the same day, allowing voters to cast provisional ballots and an audit from the Davidson County Election Commission regarding the issue. In the process of the audit, the commission will investigate why the ballot issue occurred and make that information more public. The commission released a list of 438 voters who were affected. 

According to Executive Director of the ACLU of Tennessee Kathy Sinback, it is difficult to fix the error despite reaching a settlement because Tennessee utilizes a “secret ballot system.” Once a vote is cast, the Election Commission does not record who cast the ballot, complicating the process of returning votes that were cast in the wrong district. Hence, early ballots cast in the incorrect district are still being counted. To vote in their proper districts, affected voters were allowed to cast a provisional ballott at the Davidson County Election Commission office on Election Day. These would only be counted in a contested election where the losing candidate challenges the results, usually due to a close margin. 

Anna Carella (PhD ’17), treasurer for the Odessa Kelly for the 7th District Representative campaign, was one of the voters who received a ballot for the wrong district and served as the plaintiff of the settled lawsuit. 

“I went to the Tennessee State Comptroller’s website and was listed as the 7th District. I got really excited that I was going to be able to vote for my candidate, Odessa Kelly. But, when I went to vote early on Thursday the 27th, I was given a ballot with the 6th District candidate,” Carella said. “It seemed wrong to me.” 

Carella claimed that the mapping software’s issues are a testament to the “irrational[ity]” of the redistricting lines.

“This whole situation highlights how absurd these lines being drawn are,” Carella said. “They split the precinct into two districts. Why would you split a precinct in half? It’s clear that they’re gerrymandering their districts and diluting the vote.” 

Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education, Pre-Law Advisor and Professor of Political Science and Law Carrie Russell said the issuing of incorrect ballots has concerning consequences on public trust in the accuracy of elections.

“It’s a big problem for democracy and for the legitimacy of our elections, which are being subjected to incredible scrutiny right now,” Russell said. ”The more transparency and validity that our election commissioners can lend to the ballot counting process, the better.”

Russell added that she thinks it should be codified that provisional ballots are counted along with all the other votes, instead of only being used in the case of a contested election. 

Tennessee State Representative for Tennessee State District 55 John Ray Clemmons said the issue of voters being given incorrect ballots is an act of voter suppression at the hands of the state’s Republican leadership.

“This state should have the burden of ensuring that voters are able to cast their vote for the appropriate election and candidates. In this case, of course, they shifted the burden to the voters. They’ve disenfranchised hundreds, if not more. They’ve done everything from alleged fraud to passing some of the most Draconian voter suppression laws in the country,” Clemmons said. 

Clemmons added he has received reports from his constituents that two people in the same residence had received different ballots.

“I received a text from a gentleman who lives in my district. He and his wife live in the same residence and have throughout the duration of their ownership. They live right on the border of District 55,” Clemmons said. “The husband received a ballot from District 55 on his ballot, but the wife received a completely different ballot with a different house candidate on her route.”

Sinback said she hopes to see a transparent investigation into the issue of incorrect ballots following her organization’s suit against the election commission. 

“Going forward, we need to fix the issue so that people can continue to vote confidently,” Sinback said. “Some people would take something like this and use it for political gain to say, ‘Hey, see, you shouldn’t vote, your vote doesn’t matter.’ But your vote does matter.”

This story was originally published on The Vanderbilt Hustler on November 11, 2022.