SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — There was a mad scramble to make last-minute changes after a judge granted a temporary restraining order Wednesday against state and county election officials for refusing to allow campaign workers to use restrooms at polling locations.
The city council member who filed the lawsuit says the issue is about a lot more than bathroom privileges.
A judge sided with City Council Vice Chairwoman Patrice Robinson and two of her campaign workers in a lawsuit alleging state and county election officials violated the workers’ 1st, 5th and 14th Amendment rights, among others, by forcing them to leave polling locations during early voting to use the bathroom.
The order affects workers with political campaigns, who are required to stay a certain distance from polling places during elections.
“I never would have thought in my lifetime — or even dreamed – that I would have had to go to court to ensure that people can just do some basic function of using the restroom,” Robinson said.
Robinson, who is running for re-election, says the rule means campaign workers who need a bathroom break will miss opportunities to distribute campaign materials to prospective voters.
“Our citizens need as much information as they can get. That’s why they are there on the polls,” she said.
But Linda Phillips, administrator with the Shelby County Election Commission, argued the rule is based on a state law that’s been in place since 2008.
Local officials just either weren’t aware, or weren’t enforcing it.
“This judge’s ruling essentially lets campaign workers in and tramples on well-established state law,” Phillips said.
She says allowing poll workers to use the bathroom on site has caused what she calls “substantial issues.”
“They’re just doing their jobs — I understand that,” Phillips said. “But they would come in, they’d shake hands with voters on the pre-text of using the restroom. And they’d leave literature like little breadcrumbs.”
But the lawsuit dismissed that allegation, claiming election officials “would not identify any specific dates, locations, or people involved in these incidents.”
In response to the judge’s ruling, Phillips says the election commission had to re-train 1,000 poll workers overnight.
The injunction will remain in effect throughout the day as voters continue casting their ballots.