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Why did free JTA rides to vote get cancelled before last week’s election?

On Friday, April 28, at 1:40 p.m., a press release was e-mailed to local media from Jackson Transit Authority with an announcement of a partnership between City Councilman Johnny Dodd and JTA to provide rides for people to the polls to vote the following Tuesday, May 2, in the Jackson Municipal Election Day.

By Monday, May 1, at 5:56 p.m., Dodd shared on his personal Facebook page that partnership and the free rides to the polls that came with it had been cancelled.

Madison County Administrator of Elections Lori Lott claimed responsibility for the cancellation.

“I didn’t receive the initial press release, but I saw it later in the day and I immediately questioned if it was illegal or not,” Lott said during an interview on Monday after the Election Commission had certified the results of last week’s election and officially called for a runoff in the Mayor’s election between incumbent Scott Conger and Ray Condray. “So I called the state election administrator’s office and asked them about it.

“They told me to call our District Attorney and have him look into it.”

Lott did call District Attorney Jody Pickens.

Pickens sent an e-mail to Jackson City Attorney Lewis Cobb outlining his role after Lott called him on that Friday. According to the e-mail, he spoke with Mark Goins, the State Coordinator of Elections, who connected him with an attorney in his office named Beth Henry-Robertson. Henry-Robertson cited two items in the TCA codes that could be problematic for the rides.

TCA code 2-19-126: “for any person, directly or indirectly, personally or through any other person to: (1) Pay, loan, contribute, or offer or promise to pay, loan or contribute any money, property, or other valuable thing (emphasis added), to or for any voter, or to or for any other person, to induce such voter or any voter to vote or refrain from voting in any political convention, primary or final election of any kind or character…”

Pickens said TCA code 2-19-127’s wording makes the previous code problematic.

“[TCA code 2-19-127] makes it illegal for anyone to accept anything of value for voting, agreeing to vote, or refraining from voting,” Pickens said in the e-mail. “She stated that the press release was problematic in that it seems to condition the ride to the polls and a subsequent return home on a person voting.

“She pointed to the language in the flyer that states ‘transportation will pick you up from your home  (inside the city limit) and return back home after your vote has been cast’ as a basis for her argument that the ride was something of value to induce someone to vote and that a ride is conditioned on the person voting thus running afoul of TCA 2-19-126.”

Pickens said in the e-mail he pointed out a later TCA code – 2-19-139(b) – that allows for aid to be given to someone who’s ill to get to the polls, but the indication from JTA didn’t give any kind of qualifier for those who couldn’t get to the polls on their own.

Pickens said Henry-Robertson outlined a couple of other aspects of the situation, including one that could cause JTA lose some grant funding if it were running a private charter service for a select group of citizens that wasn’t available for everyone.

The other aspect cites what another county in the state does to accomplish the goal set by Dodd and JTA to get people to the polls.

“She pointed out that Shelby County, Tennessee (and not a candidate either opposed or unopposed) provides free public transportation to all riders on election day and not just to those who are traveling to the polls to vote,” Pickens said to Cobb. “She had some concern that for JTA to continue with this program would be to potentially put grant funding in jeopardy. I bring these issues to your attention for your consideration since you represent the City of Jackson.”

Cobb relayed the message to Dodd that evening, and Dodd, who ran for re-election to the Council unopposed, let Lott know they were going to cancel the program.

“We’d done this a couple times before in 2019 during the last Jackson elections and in the Presidential election in 2020,” Dodd said. “We only wanted to do this to give people the opportunity to vote that might not be able to get out on their own and do it. It wasn’t meant for a specific party or group or anything like that.

“But when [JTA General Manager Travis Franklin] and I were talking, he said no one had signed up for the program anyway before the deadline of 4 p.m.”

Lott became the Administrator of Elections in January of 2021, so she was not working in Madison County when the previous JTA partnerships were done.

“I have to go by the law, so I can’t worry about what might’ve happened before I got here or anything else like that,” Lott said.

In other news from Monday’s meeting:

Election day for the runoff between Conger and Condray will be June 13. Early voting will start on May 24 and run through June 8 with early voting hours being 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. until noon on Saturday. Early voting will be closed on Memorial Day.

Lott reported to the Election Commission that the municipal elections cost a little more than $54,000 and the runoff will cost about the same amount, meaning the election process for Mayor of Jackson will cost about $108,000.

Brandon Shields, brandon@jacksonpost.news

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