Voter Fraud

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 14, 2008

Here we go again: voter fraud alleged at Como polling place

By Billy Davis

“If we have a report of election fraud anywhere in the state, we’re going to pursue it,” said Attorney General Jim Hood, referring to allegations in the town of Como.

Hood made that assurance two years ago, a day after the state’s case of voter fraud fell apart in circuit court when state witnesses, seated on the witness stand, suffered from memory loss or changed their stories.

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The state had brought charges of voter fraud against two appointed town officials, alleging they tampered with absentee ballots in a city election. But both defendants walked out of court in Sardis after Circuit Judge Andrew C. Baker dismissed the charges.

Two weeks later, the state tried again. But two other defendants, indicted for bribing voters with cash, were found not guilty by jurors.

Defeated in two separate cases, the state Attorney General’s office retreated back to Jackson, minus any convictions.

Two years later, Como remains ground zero for alleged voter fraud.

“It happened so much, and all day, and I couldn’t keep up with it,” Bill Ford, who served as bailiff at the Como precinct on November 4, said of voter fraud at the Como Public Library.

Ford alleged that the most flagrant and repeated offense was that Como poll workers repeatedly “helped” voters by subtly telling them whom to vote for. Some voters stood by as poll workers brazenly selected Democratic candidates on the computer screen, he claimed.

Ford also alleged that voters who did not complete the electronic ballot were urged by poll workers to do so – and to select Democratic candidates.

“It’s one thing to tell a voter their ballot wasn’t complete – I did that myself – but some of them were told they needed to complete the entire ballot,” Ford said.

The bailiff singled out Como poll manager Brenda Gates, claiming that she told a voter “you need to vote for these people.”

Gates has an unlisted phone number and could not be reached for comment. Other Como poll workers could not be reached for comment or did not return messages left at their homes. 

Ford, who lives south of Como, said he asked to serve as a poll worker, and specifically asked to serve in Como, with the intention of proving fraud at that polling place.

The Panola County Republican Party asked that Ford work at the Como precinct due to its reputation for election troubles, said election commissioner Bonnie Land. Land and other commissioners serve in a non-partisan manner but her husband, Calvin, serves as chairman of the county Republicans.

“There were no Republicans at Como, and the county Republicans wanted at least one person there,” Mrs. Land said of Ford’s presence.

Como’s election problems gained wide attention in 2005, when the town’s Democratic Election Committee reversed the mayoral election results. Minutes before mayor-elect Judy Sumner expected to be sworn in, she watched at city hall as committee members announced that they intended to count rejected absentee ballots from the town election.

The committee then pulled the absentee ballots, which had already been rejected by poll workers, from a ballot box. Each of the ballots went to incumbent Azria “Bobby” Lewers, ensuring he kept his office.

“The people who worked the polls said – one of them stood up and said – that the box had been tampered with,” Sumner, now town mayor, recalled. “But it was done anyway.”

After a lengthy court battle, a circuit court judge ruled in June that the Como election commission should not have counted the rejected absentee ballots. The ruling put Sumner in the mayor’s office with less than one year left in the four-year term.

After that same city election, the state attorney general’s office received an e-mailed complaint from a poll worker. The complaint alleged that “police cars were bringing in voters to the polls….absentee voters were bribed, threaten(ed) and some of their ballots were voted for them at City Hall.”

The complaints kicked off a state investigation that ultimately led to the pair of circuit court trials. 

“We need to get back to what is right and what is wrong, not I want my candidate to win regardless,” Sumner said last week of alleged voter fraud.

The Panolian reported last year, following an August party primary, that a reporter observed a “voter helper” moving among voters at the machines in the Como precinct. A poll worker told the helper to move from behind the machine but the helper responded that she “helping (a voter) get started.”

Poll watchers told the newspaper that the helper had been asked to leave the polling place repeatedly throughout the day.

Per state law, voters can ask for assistance from anyone they choose if they are blind, disabled or illiterate.

In Como on November 4, a reporter observed as Dorothy Kerney Wilbourne, a candidate for election commissioner, helped a voter cast her electronic ballot.

The reporter remained in the voting precinct for about 10 minutes and left at the order of Ford. The reporter did not snap any photos inside the precinct, also at the request of Ford.

Asked later if she had helped other voters throughout the day, Wilbourne said she had helped only that voter then left the precinct.

“I don’t want anybody to say that I was out doing anything because, Lord knows, all I did was go into the poll and help that lady,” she said.

But Ford said he, too, had observed Wilbourne helping other voters in the polling place.

“I also saw her sit at the table behind the voter rolls,” he said.

A spokesman for the state secretary of state’s office, reached on Election Day, advised that Wilbourne was within her legal rights to help a voter who asked for her help. But Wilbourne should have then left and remained outside of the polling place since she was a candidate for public office, he said.

At the Como poll on Election Day, the reporter also observed that Ford came out of the Como Public Library to chase away Panola sheriff’s deputy Earl Burdette. Ford claimed the deputy, dressed in his uniform with a sidearm, could be intimidating voters.

Burdette and the reporter contacted the state secretary of state’s office about the accusation. A spokesman advised Burdette that “intimidation” is a subjective definition in state law and advised Burdette to leave the area. The sheriff’s deputy did so.

Panolian readers read last week that Republican poll watchers Paul Shipman and Walker Wright claimed that election commissioner Vivian Burkley had advised a voter that he was selecting Republican candidates on his electronic ballot.

“She told him, ‘You know you’re voting for Republicans, and he said, ‘Yes,’” recalled Shipman, who was watching the polls for the county Republican Party.

“She said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, go ahead,’ and then she went and sat down,” recalled Wright, who was watching the polls for Sen. Roger Wicker.

Burkley was not seeking re-election on November 4 and her District 1 seat was won by Wilbourne.

Wright told The Panolian that he turned in the names of two Como poll workers who he claimed were telling voters whom to pick.