published Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Federal judge hears missing voting records case

People vote at Burk's United Methodist Church in Hixson.
People vote at Burk's United Methodist Church in Hixson.
Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE -- A federal judge this week will consider naming a "special master" to get to the bottom of Tennessee Democrats' assertions that voter data files received from state election officials contained partially or even totally blank voting histories for an estimated 11,000 voters.

Attorney George Barrett, who is representing Democrats in a federal lawsuit against Republican Secretary of State Tré Hargett and state Elections Coordinator Mark Goins, said U.S. District Court Judge Kevin Sharp heard the case Friday in Cookeville, Tenn.

The judge asked both sides to agree on how to deal with issues raised in court testimony, Barrett said.

Barrett, who is representing the Tennessee Democratic Party and former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., said both sides agreed Friday night on a consent order, which they intend to submit to Sharp this week.

Efforts to reach a spokesmen for Hargett and Goins and the state attorney general, whose office represented the election officials, were unsuccessful Saturday night.

"We agreed to ask the court to enter a consent order, first of all for the 11,000 voters with some kind of missing history between December 2011 and May 2012," Barrett said. "We've asked the court to appoint a special master to investigate those facts and see what happened, if anything."

Judges sometimes appoint special masters in highly complex civil cases where their expertise would assist the court.

Democrats said they noticed the missing or incomplete voter histories while comparing voter files from December and last month, both obtained from the state. They said 527 Hamilton County voters were among those with missing information.

Democrats are not alleging the state deliberately wiped files, saying it could have been a mistake because Republicans, Democrats and independent voters were affected. But they still say an independent eye is needed.

The state Democratic Party's communications director, Brandon Puttbrese, testified Friday and confirmed Barrett's account of the hearing.

The state also has agreed not to purge any more voter rolls until after the November election, Puttbrese and Barrett said.

The issue is important, Barrett said, because an inactive voting history can lead to a voter's being purged from the rolls.

Tennessee law says election officials can purge voters who haven't voted in the past two federal elections if they do not respond later to an address confirmation notice.

In a letter to Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester last week, Goins said he didn't think there was a problem but was "happy" to look at the situation if Democrats provided the names and the methodology used to compare files.

Puttbrese said last week Democrats were reluctant to do so because if the data drops were deliberate, the situation might be covered up.

Puttbrese testified Friday that Goins tried to explain the situation.

"He said his technician tells him that for every voter who has voted in 29 elections, it appears their voting history disappears when exporting the master voting file."

Puttbrese said "that may have explained 40 voters but not all those others. ... I think the judge was curious about that information and had questions" for both Goins and his assistant.

The suit originally was filed by Davis, who said he was purged improperly and kept from voting in the March presidential primary without the required mail notification in his Fentress County precinct.

The state said Davis was registered to vote as a property owner for local election voting purposes in nearby Pickett County and officials there mistakenly told Fentress election officials he should be purged from their voting rolls.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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