Who Wins Isn’t the Issue

Tampering with a ballot box is not just “cheating” at the “game” of politics, as some might consider it. It is nothing short of a treasonous act because it is an attack on the very integrity of the fundamental component of our governmental process.

State Senator Charlotte Burks may be “feeling the pain” that state Senator Ophelia Ford felt a few years back when Senator Ford’s election was put in doubt and an official contest of her election was set in motion. Senator Burks, having barely won re-election, has now found herself embroiled in an official election contest because of some election-night shenanigans in her race. But something more important is at stake than who holds that Senate seat.

Senator Burks, wife of the late Senator Tommy Burks, was a likely safe seat for Democrats going into the 2012 election. But the tidal wave that took out 12 Democrats in the state House and former State Senator Doug Jackson (whose defeat even shocked his opponent) nearly took her out, too. She won over challenger Gary Steakley by a scant 183 votes out of over 53,000 votes cast.

However, on election night the seals on two ballot boxes were broken. Breaking the seals on ballot boxes before they have been accounted for by the election commission is a big no-no.

But it wasn’t just any two ballot boxes. They were ballot boxes in Monterey where Senator Burks lives. As a consequence, Mr. Steakley has filed with the state Senate an official contest, asking the Senate to prohibit her from serving and require a new election.

Now, I do not think Senator Burks was involved in any effort to tamper with the election. I know her and have served with her; she is as honorable as any person I’ve met. She is a gracious and kind woman. And a candidate cannot help or be responsible for what some supporter might do.

Nevertheless, the seals were broken. It may be that the seals were somehow broken accidently. And even if broken intentionally, that does not mean that the person involved knew the computer system well enough to manipulate the results. But manipulation was possible. Expert testimony has been submitted to the effect that the results could have been rather quickly tampered with if the person knew the technology well enough.

Overturning an election is not easy. It will not be enough for Mr. Steakley to show that there were errors made in the voting or even that fraud occurred. By law you have to show that the errors or tampering were so pervasive as to put the results of the election in doubt. For example, assume that only 10 votes were recorded in a ballot box that was tampered with. Assuming Mr. Steakley would have gotten all 10 votes, this would not have changed the outcome of the election.

Thus, Mr. Steakley will have to convince at least 17 of the Senate’s 33 members that the problems on election night were such as to put the election in doubt. Though the Senate Republican caucus now has 20 members, I’m not convinced that 17 of them will vote in favor of the contest. A number of them, along with yours truly, voted to unseat Ophelia Ford several years ago after an election in which the irregularities were pervasive throughout the district and the votes in question could have changed the outcome of the election. The result was we all got sued and the Senate’s vote was eventually overturned by a federal judge in Memphis. Having been through that experience, some in the Senate Republican caucus might not want to be defendants in another federal fruitless lawsuit.

But whatever happens to Senator Burks, the election commission and state authorities owe it to the people of Tennessee to find out what happened. And if there was an attempt to tamper with the ballots recorded in those two boxes, those involved should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and banned from ever working a polling precinct again.

The security of the ballot box is not a partisan issue. Tampering with a ballot box is not just “cheating” at the “game” of politics, as some might consider it. To me it is nothing short of a treasonous act because it is an attack on the very integrity of the fundamental component of our governmental process.

A strong investigation and swift, strong punishment can perhaps serve as a deterrent to this kind of activity anywhere in our state. Let’s hope our state officials understand that. And future election poll workers pay attention when they do.