All Tennesseans believe we deserve fair and accurate elections. This belief unites us as Tennesseans like no other. Heck, I’d even go as far as to say it united us as Americans.

So when I read yesterday that Secretary of State Tre Hargett was going to move forward with purchasing the optical scan machines needed to count the paper ballots that the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act (TVCA) of 2008 mandates we use in November 2010, I was overcome with comfort and joy.

You see, those of use who have been urging implementation of the TVCA were elated when last month the protracted battle over implementation of the TVCA was put to rest and the Act, which was overwhelmingly supported by the people of Tennessee through their legislature, was now also fully validated by the courts.

It seemed, we believed, that Tennesseans were finally going to get the fair and accurate elections we deserve.

But then I read Jackson Baker’s Memphis Flyer article a little more closely and I realized, uh-oh, what we’re actually going to get is some post-holiday coal in our little red bootie stockings thingies.

FAIR AND ACCURATE. “I think we’ve got a 2005-quality machine,” Secretary of State Hargett said in a meeting in Memphis earlier this week, inferring that an optical scan machine made in any other year would be inadequate.

I’d like to clear up a few inaccuracies that Mr. Hargett’s chock-full one sentence statement infers.

First, the TVCA was passed to give us paper ballots, not voting machines. The paper ballots would not only record the voter’s intent but would also become the ballot of record in the case of a close election. In other words, the strength of the bill is in the paper ballot and not the machine that count the ballots. I mean, be good for goodness sake!, we could hand count the paper ballots in case of emergency and skip the machine counting process completely. Paper ballots are to optical scan machines as portable hard drives are to your computer.

To put it more simply, paper ballots give Tennesseans control over the results of our elections by giving us the ability to oversee, recount, and audit. In other words, trust but verify.

Mr. Baker followed up Mr. Hargett’s statement with an editorial comment, rife with inaccuracies: “‘I think we’ve got a 2005-quality machine,’ Hargett said in Memphis Tuesday night. Meaning that an optical-scan voting apparatus with paper-trail capability would soon be available in enough quantity to conduct statewide elections in 2010.”

The paper ballot – and the voters intent – gets counted by the optical scan machine. Or counted by hand if necessary. The optical scan machine does not produce a paper trail nor does it give the voter a receipt.

Again, the TVCA puts the emphasis on the paper ballot – not on the machines that count them – because Tennesseans prefer paper ballots that produce something tangible that they can oversee, recount, and audit. This is a much better system than the paperless electronic touch-screen voting machines we currently use that count votes using software that no one is allowed to see or monitor.

BI-PARTISAN. Accurate elections are the responsibility of the people of Tennessee, and the people of Tennessee want paper ballots. That’s why the TVCA was passed almost unanimously (when the hell does that ever happen?) in the General Assembly in 2008 – that means that 56 out of a possible 60 Republicans and 68 out of a possible 68 Democrats voted for the TVCA.

It truly was a bi-partisan effort.

The bill to delay the TVCA that Mr. Hargett mentions in the article is a divisive issue to be sure, and will most likely be brought to the Senate floor for a vote by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey by January of 2010. This bill not only delays until 2012 the date the Act must be implemented, but also guts the mandatory audit procedures.

The audit procedures that would alert us to any problem with the vote count.

Again, Tennesseans want and deserve fair and accurate elections, but how can we make sure our elections are fair and accurate unless we are able to randomly audit the results?

FISCALLY RESPONSIBLE “The real question is if there are other costs required of the counties. We can purchase the machines, but that’s all we can do,” Mr. Hargett said, admitting that the state has approximately $34 million federal dollars available that can only be used by the state to purchase election equipment.”

In these uncertain economic times, all Tennesseans are focused on fiscal responsibility. But if our concern is saving money, the best thing we can do is implement the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act.

For example, with the TVCA only one Optical Scan machines is needed per precinct instead of the multiple machines needed with the paperless electronic touch screen voting system we use now.

And because we eliminate up to 80% of existing equipment when we move to paper ballots counted by optical scan machines, counties will save the money they now spend to program, service, test, store and transport so many unnecessary paperless electronic touch-screen machines.

In fact, studies in Florida, Maryland, and North Carolina have confirmed that voting with paper ballots counted by optical scan machines is 30-40% cheaper than voting the way we do now because of the reduction in programming, software, maintenance, storage and transportation costs.

We’re all hyper-aware that local budgets are strained and that necessary services run the risk of being cut. But fair and accurate elections are the most necessary of all our public structures. They are what gives life to all the others.

Look at it this way, your vote is your voice. And if your vote doesn’t get counted for the candidate who will vote with you on the issue or issues most important to you, then your participation in our democracy is an illusion.

All Tennesseans believe we deserve fair and accurate elections. The Tennessee Voter Confidence, aptly named, gives them to us.

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Next, a scathing editorial from the Memphis Commercial Appeal. What do the state’s Republicans do with complete control of the General Assembly for the first time in over a century? They sulk and push through “wrong-headed legislation” that does nothing to ease the economic or social problems that plague the state:

When there was a show of [Republican] unity, it involved wrong-headed legislation to allow holders of handgun carry permits to take their weapons into places that serve alcohol and into local and state parks.

On the ethics front, GOP Rep. Curry Todd of Collierville proposes to do away with independent oversight of lawmakers, charging that pressure from the media led to creation of the Tennessee Ethics Commission in 2006 following the Tennessee Waltz corruption scandal. Curry and others want the ethics commission to merge with the Registry of Election Finance.

As for the judicial selection question, many hard-line conservative Republicans seem intent on requiring state Supreme Court justices and other appellate judges to run in contested elections. Their apparent aim is to get rid of any appellate judges who issue rulings they don’t like.

Meanwhile, worthwhile projects such as a proposed five-megawatt solar generation plant in Haywood County and a companion solar research institute for the University of Tennessee at Knoxville appear in jeopardy as Republican legislators seek to trim the state budget.

That and other cuts in social programs totaling about $12 million prompted Bredesen last week to call the proposed GOP cuts “stupid.”

Stay tuned, taxpayers, because unfortunately there’s more to come.

It’s going to be a long week.

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I guess we’ll have to keep asking the question until we get an answer.

Today, we’ll ask it specifically of Rep. Tony Shipley (R-Kingsport), who, as Jeff Woods reports, believes that it’s a good idea to jeopardize the millions of dollars Tennessee receives from the federal government for family planning services:

A House subcommittee has adopted a bill by our right-wing hero Tony “Wrath of God” Shipley to make it illegal for health-care providers to deny parents immediate access to the medical records of their children. An incestuous father could demand and receive his pregnant daughter’s records. Not surprisingly, this imperils the $6.5 million in federal family planning money that Tennessee receives.

So, Rep. Shipley, if your goal is to eliminate abortion, wouldn’t it be better if you sponsored legislation that would help do that by encouraging organizations such as Planned Parenthood to provide more family planning services and education to individuals who don’t normally have access to them?

And if Rep. Shipley doesn’t have the imagination to think of all the scenarios in which a child’s doctor might need – for the child’s safety – to keep medical records private, then I suggest he go and start talking to the women and doctors of his district.

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The full court press against voting and voting rights continues tomorrow as the Tennessee House Elections Subcommittee meets at 10 am to considerHB0639 by Rep. Debra Maggart (R-Hendersonville), the bill that would require “a voter to present qualified photographic identification before voting,” aka a solution in search of a problem.

It’s already been passed in the Senate (thanks for voting “No” Senators Beverly Marrero (D-Memphis, the Fightin’ 30th!), Lowe Finney (D-Jackson, the Fightin’ 27th!), and Andy Berke (D-Chattanooga, the Fightin’ 10th!) with six amendments attached – a poor attempt at leveling inherently unfair legislation. With the six amendments, the law would exempt the indigent, those living in a nursing home or staying in a hospital, the over-65 crowd, and those religiously opposed to having their picture taken.

Good, right? Not really. If you want participatory democracy to be equitable and still require Photo IDs to vote, then you have to make them free and easily accessible for everyone – not just a few exceptions. Perhaps we can put a voter registration and photo booth in every grocery and convenient store in town and staff them 24/7 (for you know, people who work the third shift).

Huh. Voter registration and photo booths in every grocery and convenient store. Now that’s a fiscal note I’d like to see attached to ol’ HB0639.

Ironically, while Tennessee’s elected Republicans continue to work towards making it more difficult for us to vote, they want to make it easier for us buy guns and drink underage.

And for those of you who think showing a photo ID is a reasonable restriction to place on the voting process, I guarantee you that if this passes they’ll be back next year with even further restrictions. Where Florida goes, Tennessee will follow.

So give a call or send an email to the members of the House Elections Subcommittee and urge them to vote “No” on HB0639.

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Summary: Guests include Alan Coverstone, Metro Nashville School Board Representative, District 9, and Dr. Heather Boushey, senior economist for the Center for American Progress.

Part 1 – Oh, Sean Penn…Really? – Oscar recap, Liberadio(!) dance party, to do List, a preview of Tuesday night’s State of the Union that isn’t a State of the Union, and take it from one commie, homo-lovin’, son-of-gun to another, Sean Penn’s acceptance speech will not move the dialogue on marriage equality in a good direction. [29.3 MB 18:16 download MP3]

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Independence Day – Martina McBride
Cannonball – The Breeders
Jai Ho! – A.R. Rahman, Sukhvinder Singh, Tanvi Shah & Mahalaxmi Iyer (Slumdog Millionaire Soundtrack)
Lovely Day – Bill Withers

Part 2 – Interview with Alan Coverstone – Alan represents District 9 on the Metro Nashville Public School Board of Education. Generally, we ask him why our public schools aren’t yet palaces. More specifically, we ask about school choice, expanded options, the most recent (and controversial) student assignment plan, the new Director of Schools, tension within the system and pressure from outside sources, and what we can do to engage in the process of constantly improving our public schools. [39.8 MB 24:48 download MP3]

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Pure – Lightening Seeds
Step On – Happy Mondays

Part 3 – Don’t They Have Anything Better to Do? Do you mean to tell us that Tennessee’s General Assembly is completely in the hands of Republicans for the first time since Reconstruction and they have nothing better to do than introduce legislation that infringes on the reproductive health of women? Is that what Tennesseans voted for? Or did we want something to be done about our bottom-of-the-barrel health statistics? And if reducing the number of abortions is really a goal instead of political calculus, we all know there is a smarter way to go about it than their dog-and-pony show constitutional amendments. Let’s start by figuring out why we’re 20th in family planning public funding but 40th in births to teen mothers (ages 15-19). Seriously, do we need to have Sarah Palin come and talk to you people? [21 MB 13:05 download MP3]

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Brimful of Asha (Norman Cook Original Radio Edit Remix) – Cornershop (Norman Cook Mix)

Part 4 – Interview with Heather Boushey – Dr. Boushey doesn’t have a beard but she is a high-profile economist, which can only mean one thing – she’s a good-looking woman with a keen sense of history! She’s also a senior economist for Center for American Progress and she joins us to assess what it would mean for a red state like Tennessee to reject the economic stimulus cash, what Americans can expect from this bill, President Obama’s policy package designed to address America’s mortgage and foreclosure crisis, what’s expected in the budget, the coming $1 trillion deficit, and what the average American should do in this time of economic woe. [23.4MB 14:35 download MP3]

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Drivin’ Me Wild – Common w/ Lily Allen (Album: Finding Forever)

Part 5 – The Gang That Couldn’t Govern Straight – What does a U.S. Senator have in common with “The Rep” from Knoxville, Tennessee and Rep. Mike Turner’s BFF, Rep. Glen “Hollywood” Casada? Their ideas are so old and useless (Tax cuts? Really?) that all they have left is to demand that each one personally verify the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. And no, it doesn’t matter that it’s been verified and authenticated by several sources already – they’ll wait their turn. Plus, a delightfully cynical and myopic listener joins us to say that while she hates “both Democrats and Republicans” equally, we’re really pissing her off. [46MB 28:41 download MP3]

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See a Little Light – Bob Mould (Album: Workbook)

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Members of the Tennessee Equality Project and their supporters tried to advance equality on the Hill today by meeting with their elected representatives: Senator Diane Black (R-18, Robertson and part of Sumner Counties), Senator Paul Stanley (R-31, Part of Shelby County), Rep. Jason Mumpower (R-3, Johnson and part of Sullivan Counties), Rep. John DeBerry (D-90, Part of Shelby County), Rep. David Hawk (R-5, Unicoi and part of Greene Counties), Rep. Frank Nicely (R-17, Part of Jefferson and Knox Counties), and Rep. Stacey Campfield (R-18, Part of Knox County)

Most of the legislators actively listened. Some tried a little artful dodging. Below is audio from conversations I had with some of the participants.

Rep. John DeBerry and Senator Paul Stanley (Memphis)

Four men from Memphis met with Rep. John DeBerry and Senator Paul Stanley, and received two very different receptions. Two of the four are a committed couple who are currently trying to adopt in Tennessee. They describe the process. Link to the mp3 (2:30)

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Republican House Leader Rep. Jason Mumpower (Bristol)

Joseph Rymer, from Bristol, is the Tri-Cities committee chair of the TNEP. He met with Jason Mumpower who told him he was interested in finding “middle-ground” and “working towards inclusion of all people.” Link to mp3 (2:00)

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Rep. David Hawk (Greeneville)

Mr. Rymer, who had an ambitious agenda of meeting with a total of 9 legislators in one day, also spoke with Rep. Hawk – a man seemingly torn between his personally beliefs and political expediency. He also let me know what it’s like to live as an openly gay man in a very conservative area. Hint: It’s exhausting to live in fear until you make it to one of your safety zones. Link to mp3 (1:40)

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Senator Diane Black (Gallatin)

Part 1 – One of the more dramatic series of events was the cancellation of the Sumner County delegation’s meeting with Senator Diane Black. The day before, Senator Black made a personal phone call to Anne Miller, who had set up the meeting, to explain why meeting would be a waste of time. Link to mp3 (1:25)

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Part 2 – Senator Black then confirmed to another of her constituents, Susan Brown of Springfield, that if she disagrees with you, she sees no value in meeting. Interestingly, however, during their short conversation, Senator Black indicated that she would support the bill to allow gender changes on birth certificates. Link to mp3 (1:07)

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Part 3 – The meeting with Senator Black was set for 2:00 PM, and even though it had been canceled the night before, Anne, Tara, Susan, and Maria Brewer decided to go to her office at the appointed time to see if they could get in to see her. Senator Black – luckily or unluckily depending on your perspective – came out of her office just as the women arrived and, caught by surprise, agreed to give the group five minutes. Maria recaps. Link to mp3 (1:53)

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Rep. Frank Nicely (Knoxville)

Brad Coulter and his family drove from Knoxville to meet with their representative and were stood up. So they decided to wait outside a committee room to see if they could grab a few minutes of Rep. Nicely’s time. For Brad, the TNEP’s Advancing Equality Day on the Hill was very personal – his sister is gay and had to move with her partner and baby son to another state so her partner could become a legal parent to the child. As Brad puts it, it’s a shame that Tennessee had to lose two valuable members of the community because they didn’t feel welcome. Link to mp3 (1:51)

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Brad later called to tell me – excitedly – that he and his family had met with Rep. Nicely and he was receptive and cordial.

Rep. Stacey Campfield (Knoxville)
Rep. Campfield was a no-show for his appointment. Then he rescheduled and missed that meeting too.

The most disturbing part of the day – other than not being able to hear the stories of each of today’s civil rights citizen lobbyists (I heard there were productive meetings with Senator Joe Haynes, Rep. Gary Odom, Rep. Mike Turner, and others) – was Senator Black’s insistence that there was no need to meet with her constituents because she didn’t agree with them. I guess just like George W. Bush in 2004, she has one accountability moment every 6 years.

UPDATE: Chris Sanders, president of the Tennessee Equality Project recaps the day on his blog, Grand Divisions, and Jeff Woods at the Scene weighs in.

UPDATE II: Jeff Woods at the Nashville Scene’s Pith in the Wind does some seriously good editorializing on why Senator Black’s actions were inexcusable: “With a series of audio reports on the Liberadio(!) website, Mary Mancini paints a picture of democracy in action–Tennessee style. Any oily lobbyist with a checkbook can waltz into any legislative office at any time of the day or night and receive a full hearing. But when gays and lesbians and their supporters tried to lobby the legislature yesterday like any other citizens of this great land, their elected representatives often were less than alert and receptive listeners.”

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