MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Tennessee election officials called Friday for closer scrutiny of a contest in the state's largest county after reports that more than 5 percent of voters have gotten the wrong ballot during early voting.
Tennessee Election Coordinator Mark Goins said he has asked the state comptroller's office to do a performance audit of the vote in Shelby County. Goins described the situation as "a mess," and a letter from Goins and Secretary of State Tre Hargett noted that the current issues are part of a string of troubling election problems dating back years.
The state stepped in on the next to last day of early voting after voting database expert Joe Weinberg estimated more than 2,300 voters cast early choices on the wrong ballot. The mistakes are largely the result of redistricting and affect state legislative races.
Weinberg told The Commercial Appeal that he has been helping identify the problems for the Shelby County Election Commission, which reports 445,747 registered voters in the county.
Goins said he wants to get the matter corrected by next Thursday's primary and expects to have an "error free" general election in November.
Voters who already cast incorrect early ballots will not be allowed to vote again, and officials are urging voters who think their ballot is wrong to tell a poll worker before casting their ballots.
Richard Holden, the county's Administrator of Elections, told The Associated Press on Friday that he could not confirm Weinberg's numbers, and he did not provide his own estimate as to how many ballots have been incorrect. Holden said the commission was working to make sure that no more mistakes were made.
"I haven't been looking in the rear view mirror," Holden said. "I have been looking through the windshield."
In their letter to the comptroller requesting the audit, Hargett and Goins said election problems in Shelby County have stretched back about a decade. In 2010, an election official loaded the wrong information into an electronic toll book, indicating that thousands of voters had cast ballots when they hadn't.
Candidates in 2006 sued the county election commission, alleging that irregularities affected the outcome of a county general election. In 2005, a special election to fill a vacant seat was voided because ballots were cast by ineligible felons and dead people.
"While each example is in and of itself unacceptable, together they indicate a troubling pattern of errors that cannot go unnoticed," the letter said. "These errors have eroded public confidence in the Shelby County Election Commission Administration to the point where every action taken by them is considered suspect."
Many of the improper ballots are in uncontested races, but more than 300 of them have showed up in the District 93 contest involving current state representatives Mike Kernell and G.A. Hardaway.
Both candidates say they continue to hear from voters about problems.
"We've got one goofy scenario after another and there is just no excuse," Hardaway told the newspaper.
Through Wednesday, 41,595 votes had been cast.
Six suburban cities have referendums on whether to leave the county school system and create their own schools. Those elections are being contested in court as a violation of the state constitution and the votes could be thrown out later.
Associated Press writer Lucas L. Johnson II contributed to this report from Nashville.