Heading into Election Day, there was no shortage of storylines for the Democratic primary showdown between longtime state Sen. Douglas Henry and attorney Jeff Yarbro for the state Senate’s District 21 seat.
Now, thanks to its razor-thin margin, Nashville’s most closely watched local race has produced yet another, this time centered on the mechanics of Election Day itself. With widespread confusion over how a simple vote count could change so frequently — four times as of this writing, pending an upcoming official recount — city leaders and political observers are scratching their heads over the election night performance of the Davidson County Election Commission, wondering whether lessons have been learned to make the next round of voting in November go more smoothly.
“I think that anybody that is following this has got to have some concerns,” At-large Metro Councilman Ronnie Steine said. “There just seems to be one thing after another. And there seems to be kind of this constant dribble of things that aren’t quite right about the processes.”
The real drama on Election Day — which happened to be the second-to-last for retiring Elections Administrator Ray Barrett — began at 9 p.m., when the commission informed 33-year-old Yarbro he had won by 18 votes. Henry, 83, had been told of his apparent loss and was quietly smoking a cigar outside his election party, perhaps reflecting on his long legislative career.
His mood would change. Initial figures included absentee ballots that were hand-counted by a four-member team called in after Barrett learned of a malfunction in an absentee voting scanner at 5:30 p.m. on Election Day. Soon a new count emerged, factoring in an election staffer’s tally sheet that covered for the broken machine. Henry enjoyed a two-vote advantage. Gloom at the Henry party soon turned to celebration, but there were still two provisional ballots left to count.
Those two provisional ballots, as fate would have it, were validated and awarded to Yarbro the next Monday. But they didn’t make up the difference. Late in the afternoon of the previous Friday, attorneys for Yarbro had visited the election commission, where they learned of new numbers that, when later combined with the two provisional ballots, showed Yarbro down by 13 votes. Figures would change yet again the next week, when a previously uncounted voting machine was discovered during a normal audit of election results, bringing Yarbro’s deficit to 11 votes.
“Certainly, I think they need to take some steps,” Steine said. “At this point in time, I don’t know if there’s anything major. Some of that may just be miscommunication and not inaccuracy. Maybe it’s bad information and not bad counting. But discovering a machine has just got to raise questions for everybody.”
No one is suggesting procedures ran catastrophically afoul, but observers have a few ideas about how the Election Day protocol could be tweaked. Some say Barrett could assign a liaison to deliver elections results to reporters.
“You need somebody who is a point person on the voting process who is going to be the official spokesperson, who is going to give the official data, and all else should be disregarded,” At-large Metro Councilwoman Megan Barry said.
“It’s pretty clear to me that the way the numbers got reported, it fostered some misinformation,” Barry said. “Not having complete data before they were released, it was a mistake to put this stuff out there. And it causes distrust in the process with voters.”
Barrett pinned the Election Day confusion on the malfunctioning absentee ballot scanner. He has acknowledged that the first batch of unofficial absentee numbers — showing Yarbro as the winner — should not have been released.
“Usually, if the scanner had worked, we would have had all those votes at 7 o’clock, early voting, absentees and all,” Barrett said. “Since the scanner broke, which we found out at 5:30, we had to bring those [counting] teams.”
Davidson County Election Commission Chairman Lynn Greer said lessons can be learned “whether you do everything right or wrong,” but he attributed some of the confusion to the Yarbro campaign’s response to unofficial numbers.
“Jeff’s brother [Jason Yarbro] was standing outside … and somebody walked up and gave him a number,” Greer recalled. “And it was before all the tally sheets had been counted, and that probably shouldn’t have happened. They [the Yarbro campaign] kept saying, ‘The numbers changed.’ But I was standing there when he was shown the number, and the person who showed it to him and I both said, ‘That’s not official. Don’t take that to the bank.’
Barrett, who has received high marks since replacing embattled administrator Michael McDonald in 2004, is set to retire this year. His replacement will add to the change ushered in when the five-member commission switched from Democratic to Republican control after the GOP gained command of the state House in 2008. Greer said the commission has “no one in mind” to replace Barrett and would review all applicants.