MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Democrats in Tennessee’s largest county are accusing election officials of trying to suppress black votes in early voting preceding the August elections.
Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Corey Strong on Wednesday criticized the decision by the county Election Commission to make Agricenter International the only open polling location on the first five days of the early voting process, which starts July 13.
Strong said the location in suburban east Memphis is too far away for people who live in urban black neighborhoods who rely on public transportation to get to voting locations. He argued the location, plus three new suburban sites being opened later as early voting spots, will make it easier for Republicans to vote compared with Democrats.
The majority party of the five-member election commission is determined by the majority party of the Tennessee General Assembly, according to the commission’s website. Republicans currently comprise the majority of the General Assembly.
The city of Memphis is majority black, but the Shelby County early voting locations questioned by Democrats are predominantly white, census data shows. Whites outnumber blacks by more than 20-to-1 in the Agricenter’s zip code, according to data from the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.
“This is a clear attempt at voter suppression,” Strong said, adding that the selection of the Agricenter “in no way represents an equitable place.”
A fifth new location opening during early voting is found in a heavily African-American zip code, census data shows.
Strong said he wants election officials to issue an apology and prepare to offer an “equitable” solution to the County Commission. The election commission will revisit the issue in a meeting on Friday, spokeswoman Suzanne Thompson said.
In the first few days of early voting in past elections, voters went to a county office building downtown, but it was changed because some candidates work in the building. Elections Administrator Linda Phillips said the Agricenter has shown balanced turnout in past elections.
Data shows that early voting is “very slow” early on during primary elections and opening the new polling places decried by the Democrats would help ease congestion at other voting locations, Phillips said.
“My thought was, ’Well, let’s improve the voter experience,’” Phillips said. “Voters are going to wait until the last week to vote, let’s get some more sites so that we can spread them out a little bit so they don’t have to wait as long.”
People can vote anywhere in the county during early voting, so “the political leaning of the location doesn’t mean anything about the people that vote there,” Phillips said.
Early voting runs from July 13 through July 28. The Aug. 2 election includes primaries for Congress and General Assembly. It also includes general elections for several key local positions, including county mayor, County Commission and school board.