No paper trail by Super Tuesday for 2nd big Tennessee county

Published 9:17 am Tuesday, December 17, 2019

NASHVILLE (AP) — A second big county in Tennessee won’t have paper-trail producing voting equipment that experts consider crucial for election integrity in place by the March 3 presidential primary.

Knox County — anchored by Knoxville — is eyeing a change from fully electronic machines to paper ballots that are filled out by hand then scanned, but they won’t be functioning until state and federal elections in August 2020, county elections administrator Clifford Rodgers said Tuesday.

Tennessee is one of only 14 states that don’t require a paper record of all ballots — regarded by most election security experts as crucial to ensuring accurate vote tallies. A proposal by the state Election Commission to have all counties install voting machines that would produce some sort of paper trail was halted in August.

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Fourteen of Tennessee’s 95 counties — representing only 556,400 of the state’s 4 million-plus registered voters — used voting equipment with some sort of paper trail in 2018. Half of those counties made the change just last year.

Shelby County, the state’s most populated county and home to Memphis, announced earlier this month that it also would fail to have new electronic machines that produce a paper trail in place for Super Tuesday voting in March. They hope to be conducting a trial run of the new equipment in August as well. Local funding for those machines was approved this year.

Shelby County is looking at machines that retain touchscreen capabilities but produce a paper trail that a voter can review before it’s scanned into another machine.

Knox County’s goal had been to introduce the new voting system for local elections before Super Tuesday, but back-and-forth wrangling over which equipment was right and the government purchasing process has slowed down the timeline, Rodgers said. The county elections commission will get a demonstration of the equipment Thursday.

“I’ve learned one thing in elections: You don’t want to be in a rush,” Rodgers said. “Whatever it is you want to do, getting it right, accuracy — that matters. Speed’s important, but it’s not the controlling factor in my view.”

The number of counties with paper-trail producing equipment will increase to 20 for the March presidential primary, and 24 by the November general election, said Tennessee secretary of state’s office spokeswoman Julia Bruck.

One of them, Nashville’s city-county government, switched earlier this year to touchscreen machines that produce paper trails and has already used them in local elections.

“With two elections under our belt with the new equipment, the response from the voting public has been positive,” said Jeff Roberts, elections administrator for Nashville’s Davidson County.

The push toward paper isn’t universal in Tennessee, where voting equipment decisions are left up to the locals. Five counties have decided to buy new machines this year or last that don’t produce any paper trail, but only one of them has a population estimated at more than 100,000 people: Blount County, with an estimated 2016 population near 129,000 and 84,700 registered voters as of June.

Knox, Shelby and Davidson account for about 1.3 million of Tennessee’s registered voters.

Rodgers, the Knox County elections administrator, said he still thinks electronic-only voting equipment is secure. But he said the push for change is about voter confidence.

“If they don’t trust it, then maybe they don’t vote, and that’s not the purpose of having a new system,” Rodgers said.