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This is one of the hardest places to vote in America

Matt Vasilogambros, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- For several hours after the polls closed Tuesday, as darkness settled and candidates and journalists anxiously scrolled through their phones, people in Tennessee's most populous county couldn't be sure they were getting up-to-date, accurate results in one of the closely watched races of the midterm election.

Frantic local broadcast reporters, lined up in a drab, cold room at the Shelby County Elections Commission, warned viewers time and again that results were not yet complete, despite what the county website claimed.

Until 11 that night, four hours after polls closed, the only complete results in local contests were not on the county's website, but on the sheets of paper passed out to journalists and campaign workers in the county's offices.

"The realities of using a 15-year-old computer system," said Linda Phillips, the county's elections administrator, by way of explanation, describing a system of memory cards, thumb drives and "very antiquated" technology. It was a frustrating conclusion to a frustrating midterm election.

Tennesseans voted in record numbers this year, drawn to the polls by a U.S. Senate race that saw Republican Marsha Blackburn defeat Democrat Phil Bredesen.

Problems in Georgia got more attention, but here in western Tennessee, long lines, glitchy voting machines, voter registration purges and other difficulties also tarnished the electoral process. As in Georgia, leading civil rights activists here accused local officials of making it harder for people of color to vote.

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It was a similar story across the country Tuesday: Voters from New York to Utah complained of broken machines, confused poll workers and hourslong lines.

In one Georgia county, officials neglected to bring power cords to keep the machines running. In Texas, a poll worker yelled a racist comment at a black voter. In North Dakota, Native Americans were told their IDs weren't precise enough, so tribal leaders re-printed the documents on the fly. Stateline spent the past week in one place, Shelby County, Tennessee, investigating how seemingly small and isolated challenges can add up and leave voters feeling disenfranchised.

"There are active, explicit attempts to suppress the vote in Shelby County," said Charles McKinney, an associate professor of history at Rhodes College in Memphis. "Voter suppression is real and not a figment of our imagination. It's not an imaginary monster under the bed. It has an impact."

The legacy of racism in Memphis, from the city's role in the domestic slave trade to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., scars many people of color here. In the past decade, voter-registration purges and voter ID laws have disproportionately affected minority and low-income voters.

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