10-22-2016  10:57 am      •     
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) -- Incorrect ballots during early voting, a disputed proposal to create six new suburban school districts, and a fight over photo identifications are putting Shelby County in the spotlight on Election Day.

The run-up to Thursday's election in the county that includes Memphis has been marked by confusion at some polls and federal court hearings on two different fronts. State officials are closely monitoring the process, concerned about election problems in a county that's seen its share of rocky votes.

The Department of Justice is also watching. The department's Memphis division said Tuesday that Assistant U.S. Attorneys and FBI agents will be available to handle any complaints of election fraud and voter rights abuses.

Turnout has been high so far; about 11 percent of the county's registered voters went to the polls early, according to the Shelby County Election Commission. Voters appear to be energized as they decide several matters, including whether to create new public school systems in six municipalities.

Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington want to avoid the merger between the larger, majority-black Memphis school system and the smaller, majority-white Shelby County district. The municipalities are currently part of Shelby County Schools but want to break away before the consolidation, set for 2013.

A state law passed this year allowed the suburbs to schedule the vote. But the Shelby County Commission sued to stop it, arguing that the law violates the Tennessee constitution because it deals with only one county. The merger plan could face major adjustments should the municipalities get their own schools.

On July 12, U. S. District Court Judge Samuel ``Hardy'' Mays ruled that the school referendums can continue and he will decide the law's constitutionality in early September. Mays said the best approach ``not to enjoin an election but to second guess it.''

County commissioners also have argued that the municipalities' school districts would be majority-white and that race is a reason that they want their own systems. They claim that those who sought the elections are discriminating against black residents.

In a court filing, the municipalities said allegations of racial discrimination were unfounded.

Mays did not address the discrimination allegation in the earlier hearing, and it's not clear when or if he would take on that issue after ruling on the constitutionality issue.

Another issue is a federal lawsuit filed by Memphis officials who want to allow voters to use photo IDs issued by the city's public library as their voter ID.

U.S. District Judge Kevin H. Sharp has already denied the city's request for a temporary injunction ordering the election commission to accept the library IDs.

A second hearing is scheduled in Nashville on Tuesday afternoon. U.S. District Court Judge Aleta A. Trauger says she wants to hear more information, including the library's rules for issuing photo ID cards.

One of the underlying issues affecting the election has been redistricting, which the Tennessee General Assembly completed in January. But the county election commission didn't update local voter files until June 13, which was after the county commission completed its own redistricting. By law, that was supposed to have been done much earlier.

The early voting ballot mistakes came as election workers prepared precinct ballots to reflect redistricting.

Voting database expert Joe Weinberg estimated more than 2,300 voters cast early choices on the wrong ballot. Most incorrect ballots were in the state House of Representatives races.

Confusion also emerged in Collierville, where the election officials failed to include on voter rolls people from hundreds of recently annexed homes.

The mistakes led Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Tennessee Election Coordinator Mark Goins to ask the state comptroller's office for a performance audit of the Shelby County vote. A letter from Goins and Hargett to the comptroller said public confidence in the Shelby County vote has been eroded due to a string of problems dating to 2005.

County election officials say they are working to fix the ballot problems.

They also are asking citizens to make sure their ballot is correct before casting their vote. Voters are being told to tell a poll worker about any ballot problems.

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