In 1907, the 55th General Assembly of Tennessee enacted legislation that created the Shelby County Election Commission. At that time, it was called the “Commissioners of Elections,” and was comprised of three men, who were appointed by the State Election Commission. Two of the three members were of the political party of the gubernatorial candidate who won Shelby County. Members had to be "qualified voters of the county... and men of approved character... and residents of the county for at least five years before their appointment." Ballots were handwritten by the voters and tabulated by hand in the Courthouse after an election was over.
In the early days, the Commission was highly influenced by politics. Since those years, the Shelby County Election Commission has beome more focused on the needs of voters and today's Commissioners vote according to their conscience and not necessarily along party lines. Though the majority of the Commission is determined by which political party controls the General Assembly, Commissioners are not pressured from state government officials, who at one time exerted control over the commissioners.
E.H. Crump was first elected Mayor of Memphis in 1909. Known as "Boss" Crump, he had tremendous influence over the County Election Commission, even though the members were appointed by the State Election Commission. In 1938, Governor Browning tried to nullify the strength of "Boss" Crump. The Governor had planned to send a representative, Lewis Pope, to verify the county registration rolls. But in 1937, the Crump Election Board removed 4,946 names before Pope could act. Governor Browning then arranged to relieve the Commissioners of Shelby Election Commission and appoint three members loyal to the Governor. On a technicality, members of the Crump board, Lytle McKee (D), Joe Thompson (D) and Ross Mathews (R) refused to step down or turn over the registration records to the new board: Galen Tate (D), Sam Johnson (D), and David Hanover (R).
Lawsuits and counter lawsuits ensued and the conflict dragged on for months. "Boss" Crump endorsed Governor Browning's opponent, Prentice Cooper, and Cooper won.
In 1968, the Legislature passed an act that increased the number of commissioners from three to five.
Voter registration records were maintained on hand-written cards. Prior to 1975, voters could only register to vote by appearing in person at either the office of the Election Commission or at a Supplemental Voter Registration Drive. In 1975, Shelby County became the first county in the state to use mail-in postcards for voter registration.
In 1971, Betty (Mrs. Clyde R.) Smith (R) became the first woman appointed to the Shelby County Election Commission. In 1973, Leah (Mrs. Carl A.) Abbott (R) was appointed, marking the first time two women were Commissioners.
In 1975, the first black Commissioner, Kathryn Bower (D), was appointed. This was also the same year in which the Commission was first chaired by a woman, Ann Weldon (R).
When the Election Commission was created, the political party majority was determined by the party affiliation of the governor. In 1977, due to a change in Tennessee law, the party majority of the Election Commission began to be determined by the majority party of the Tennessee General Assembly. This is still how the party make-up of the Commission is determined.
The first recorded election in Shelby County occured in April, 1827. At that time, all voting occured at the Courthouse on paper ballots written out by the voters.
Early in the 1900's, pre-printed ballots were first used. Votes were tallied at the courthouse. In 1950, many were calling for Shelby County to use some sort of mechanical voting machine as it took nearly forty hours to tabulate the results. It wasn't until 1958, however, that the first voting machines were purchased. The County purchased 700 voting machines at a cost of $710,000.
In 1986, the County purchased new Shouptronic voting machines, which were the first electronic voting devices.
In 1998, touch screen direct record electronic (DRE) machines were purchased for early voting. These machines were manufactured by Global Election Company. By 2006, Global Election had been acquired by Diebold. In 2006, the entire county went to DRE machines because the Shuptronic machines could not accomodate the longest ballot ever seen in Shelby County. The County spent $4.2 million for these machines and they are still in use today. The current machines are nearing end of life and the Commission is planning to replace them in 2021.
For a partial list of the commissioners since 1907, click here. This list is incomplete, so if you have any information about any of the missing years, please call Carol at 901-222-1203
Photo from 1952 demonstrating a new voting machine. Left to right - Dr. Henry Gotten, Homer Armstrong and Charles Pool. Photo courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University Libraries, University of Memphis.
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