Early voting slip ‘honest mistake,’ election commission says

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No heads have rolled yet in controversy surrounding the Rutherford County Election Commission’s violation of state law in the early voting period leading up to the Aug. 5 State and Federal Primary and County General Election.

The election commission held an information meeting Monday night to discuss the body’s failure to open the required three Saturdays leading up to the August election. During early voting the commission failed to open July 17 and was only open two of the required Saturdays.

“It was an error. It was an honest mistake,” Rutherford County Elections Administrator Hooper Penuel said. “We feel like the hours we were open provided more than adequate time to vote.”

Election Commission Chairman Tom Walker said voters were given a record number of hours to vote early across the county.

Rutherford County voters had 547 total hours to cast early ballots, compared to around 100 hours in most other Middle Tennessee counties. Wilson County came closest with 360 hours and Cannon County only offered 37 hours of early voting.

Walker said the election commission has made access to early voting a top priority over the past few years.

“We’ve been working on that since I got on the commission,” he said.

But the sheer number of hours doesn’t make up for the lost Saturday.

“The only thing, and it is unfortunate, that we were three hours short in one location during early voting,” Walker said.

The mistake leaves the election, which had some very close and highly contested races, open to being contested, either by candidates or voters. For voters to contest the election, they must sign an affidavit swearing there was no other opportunity for them to vote other than Saturday, July 17.

U.S. Congressional candidate for the 6th District Lou Ann Zelenik said she has no plans to contest the election. Zelenik lost the Republican nomination by only a few hundred votes.

“Three hours on that one Saturday didn’t make a difference,” she said.

But it could have made a difference in one county commission race, Rutherford County Democratic Party Chairman Jonathon Fagan said.

County Commissioner Rick Hall lost his re-election bid by a mere 12 votes. And the closed voting location in question was in his district.

“If you take in the dynamics of the race and the timing, everything points to a significant impact,” Fagan said, adding Democratic candidate for the 6th District Ben Leming could argue a case also.

The election commission doesn’t buy that argument though.

“That is assuming those people who couldn’t vote wouldn’t vote at all,” Walker said. And so far the election commission hasn’t gotten any complaints from people who had planned to vote but couldn’t Saturday, July 17.

The next step is for the Tennessee State Election Commission to review the situation at its next meeting Sept. 21.

The Rutherford County Election Commission will certify its Aug. 5 election results Monday, Aug. 23. Candidates then have five days to contest the election.

Michelle Willard can be contacted at 615-869-0816 or mwillard@murfreesboropost.com.

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Elections, Hooper Penuel, Jonathon Fagan, Lou Ann Zelenik, RuCo, Tom Walker
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Members Opinions:
August 19, 2010 at 11:03am
How did Penuel make such an egregious error? Oh yes, I know, we all make errors, but he's been at this for a long time.
Maybe that's the problem--some people don't know when to quit.

Phil Harper
August 19, 2010 at 12:22pm
good grief, there was adequate time to vote regardless of this one location and this one date
August 19, 2010 at 3:05pm
Now we can fire him for cause, instead of just being a jerk.
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