National and local election reform groups have weighed in on the local controversy about the purchase of new voting machines, assailing the process for its unwarranted secrecy. Representatives of AUDIT Elections USA (AUDIT USA), a national nonprofit advocating for hand-marked paper ballots and post-election audits, have said that the secrecy surrounding the Shelby County purchasing process is unprecedented. The organization has advocated for auditable and secure elections in various local jurisdictions around the country, assisting local grassroots activist groups. It hosted an April 9 national forum focusing on the Shelby County controversy with experts from around the country. 

“The Shelby County Election Commissioners are being asked to vote on a staff recommendation for a $10 million purchase without even seeing the alternatives they’re voting on,” said AUDIT USA founder John Brakey. “The public is being asked to comment without seeing that information either. In all our efforts around the country, we’ve never seen anything like it.”

At the April 1 Election Commission meeting, Election Commission attorneys claimed that, according to a state law regarding the bidding process, bids on the $10 million contract couldn’t be released until after the Election Commission recommended a contract and County Mayor Lee Harris signed a letter indicating an intent to award it to a specific vendor. But such was not the case with other Tennessee counties’ voting machine purchases, including Knox and Williamson Counties, which had more open processes.

Local transparency experts are skeptical. Attorney Lucian T. Pera of Adams and Reese LLP, an expert on open records issues, said, “Their secrecy does not seem to be required or authorized by state law. There are ways they can release this information before a decision is made, and they ought to do that." Deborah Fisher of the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government, added, " There's absolutely no reason to keep the proposal secret – no valid legal reason and no practical reason. The county could make them public with no repercussions. Keeping them secret creates a cloud over the entire process."

The secrecy concern comes amidst a tug of war between local activists and the like-minded County Commission, who favor hand-marked paper ballots (HMPBs), versus the Election Commission Administrator Linda Phillips, who favors Ballot Marking Devices (BMDs). With HMPBs, a voter fills in bubbles on a paper ballot with a pen and inserts the ballot into a scanner. The scanner records the votes electronically and securely stores the paper ballots, which can be used to verify election results. BMDs, which use computerized touchscreen machines, do not offer the same checks and balances as an HMPB voting system.

Election security experts around the country, including Shelby County Election Commissioner Bennie Smith, note that BMDs are subject to hacking and glitches rendering them less secure.

They are also much more expensive, based on various independent cost estimates made by AUDIT USA, Commissioner Smith, and local activists. A hand-marked paper ballot voting system in Shelby County would cost approximately $2.5 million. Ballot-marking devices would cost about $9 million.

AUDIT USA sees the decision as a fundamental challenge to U.S. democracy.

Nationally known elections attorney and AUDIT USA general counsel Chris Sautter said, “I believe America is at a crossroads, and it’s in the election process. We’re turning over our elections and have been for the last 20 years to faceless voting machine company profiteers and compliant bureaucrats. The taxpayers are being pilfered, and if we don’t stand up now and deny this force, it may be too late.”

Local activists echo these concerns, particularly in the time of pandemic. “Medical experts tell us the coronavirus lasts on touchscreens for three days,” said Erika Sugarmon, a Shelby County Schools educator and member of a coalition of local grassroots activists advocating for HMPBs. “Especially this year, we need to have a safer paper ballot alternative for voters.”

Sugarmon cited Dr. Jeff Warren, a Memphis physician and City Council member who advises Mayor Strickland on pandemic response, who stated publicly at the April 1 Election Commission meeting that coronavirus concerns favored HMPBs over BMDs, and mail-in voting over both. Public comment at that April 1 meeting was overwhelmingly in favor of HMPBS, with over 100 members of the public contributing comments.

AUDIT USA also raised concerns about the voting machine vendors’ lobbying efforts. For the past several years, the nation’s largest voting machine vendor, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), has hired 3 lobbyists in Tennessee to push the more lucrative, expensive BMDs over the more cost-effective HMPBs. The price difference is dramatic: instead of spending 8 cents for each pen used to hand-mark a ballot, the counties will be spending $4,000 or more on each BMD machine to mark a ballot.

FULL-LENGTH VIDEO of the Election Security Forum

(View trailer for forum video at

OPEN LETTER to Shelby County officials, voters & media:

For more information, please contact:

Susan Pynchon, AUDIT Elections USA, (386) 804-3131,

Steve Mulroy, (901) 603-8779,