Davidson County voting machines that defaulted to Republican ballots during the Aug. 2 primary elections had been programmed like those used in a closed-primary system, which Tennessee doesn’t have, an election official said this week. Election Commissioner Steve Abernathy, who has defended the county’s use of the machines, known as “electronic poll books,” confirmed that vendor ES&S programmed them like the ones used in Maryland, where voters generally must be registered members of a party to vote in its primary. In Tennessee, the system is open, meaning voters don’t register as party members, and they can cast ballots in either primary. But the machines in 60 of Davidson County’s 160 precincts didn’t always work that way last month. Some voters, including Sheriff Daron Hall, an elected Democrat, have said the electronic poll books gave them Republican ballots if poll workers didn’t ask them which primary they wanted to vote in. The problem has drawn howls of outrage from Democrats, including Metro Council members and U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper.
Abernathy, one of three Republicans on the five-member Election Commission, said the machines weren’t supposed to work that way. “We had specified in the information we gave (the vendor) to set it up where the precinct registrar had to make a selection in order for them to be able to print the application for a ballot,” he said. “So it was supposed to be impossible for it to do what it did.”
Told of the closed-primary model, Metro Councilman Bo Mitchell, who is running as a Democrat for a state House seat, said the situation arose from one of two scenarios, neither of them good. He said ES&S’s success as a business depends on making Democrats and Republicans feel comfortable with the mechanics of voting, so he thinks the company was instructed to program the default to the party in power in Tennessee right now. “Someone had to tell them how to program those machines in that fashion,” Mitchell said. “We’re still waiting for the Election Commission to tell us who. They’re not going to alienate potentially half of their business by favoring one party or the other.” But if ES&S was at fault, “I don’t know why we’re doing business with them,” he added. Election Administrator Albert Tieche said ES&S has said publicly that it was at fault. He said he’s not happy with the company.