Como Polls

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 26, 2010

Como’s election problems persist, say poll watchers 

By Billy Davis

Accusations of troubles at the Como voting precinct have been the subject of ongoing complaints for some time, and the accusations continued Tuesday during the run-off election.

Among varied complaints, poll watchers and a candidate complained most often that poll workers were knowingly skirting election laws that allow a voter to request help to cast a ballot.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

At the voting machine, voters can request help from anyone they choose if the voter is blind, disabled or illiterate.

Mississippi election law stipulates how help is administered. But Como poll watchers continue to report that poll workers and the public are swaying voters at voting machines there.

Such accusations did not go unnoticed at the Tuesday runoff. Election observers representing two state agencies, and the federal Department of Justice, camped out inside the precinct throughout the day.  

“They’re not following the law,” Judy Gravatt of Como, a poll watcher for Hal Johnson, told a reporter outside the precinct.

Johnson was seeking a justice court judge’s seat. He lost to opponent Mike Wilson Tuesday.  

Gravatt did not elaborate about what she saw inside the precinct but did say she had challenged about five votes during the day.  

Steven Pittman, a second poll watcher, said he had challenged about 15 votes by mid-afternoon Tuesday.

He was representing Gerald Chatham Sr., who won the newly created circuit court judge Place Four seat.

A poll watcher has legal authority to challenge a vote when he believes it was cast unlawfully, or that a poll worker failed to follow state election law.  

“There was a lot of confusion,” said Pittman, when asked to summarize his observances.

He recalled one incident when an illiterate voter left without voting. The elderly voter returned later with a helper, who asked him if he wanted to vote for the “white candidate” or the “black candidate.”

“He said ‘the black candidate’ and she pushed the button,” Pittman said.

A reporter was present when Pittman challenged a curbside vote outside the precinct, when Como poll manager Brenda Gates closed the door of a car while the passenger was voting. A second person was seated in the driver’s seat, however, and Pittman protested.

“We can’t hear what’s going on,” Pittman said, since the driver could be telling the passenger how to vote. “You need to open the door.”

“It’s okay,” Gates replied, and the car door stayed closed.

An observer for the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office, who witnessed the incident, spoke to Gates after the vote was cast.

The Como precinct, located inside the public library, is the largest polling place in the county.

Unofficial returns show 926 votes were cast in Como in the sheriff’s run-off election, one of three races on the run-off ballot.

The size of the Como precinct unfairly creates more scrutiny than other precincts, said interim Sheriff Otis Griffin, who won election Tuesday. He won 689 votes in Como.

Griffin said more pressing voting problems in Panola revolve around voters being turned away from voting precincts. He cited a disagreement Tuesday at the Courtland voting precinct.  

“A voter was told he couldn’t vote and would have to show I.D.,” Griffin said. “Nobody should have to show identification to vote.”

The sheriff also placed blame on poll watchers, saying their presence “serves as a discourager” to voters.

Griffin was pulled into the back-and-forth accusations in Como Tuesday when opponent Dennis Darby confronted precinct bailiff Ernestine Carter outside the library.

Darby had been serving as a poll watcher in the precinct when he asked his opponent to listen as Darby voiced his complaints.

“I told (Carter) that things have been out of control and they needed to stop. I was sick of the crap,” Darby recalled.

“The only thing I did was stand and listen to his complaint,” Griffin told The Panolian.

Eyewitnesses said the confrontation was heated. Tony Carter, the bailiff’s son, said he confronted Darby after the candidate “pointed his finger at my momma.”

Carter, as precinct bailiff, is responsible for ensuring Mississippi voting laws are followed inside and outside the precinct.

“It’s going nice,” Carter said of the run-off election in Como.

Both Pittman and Darby complained separately to a reporter that Carter had refused to clear the precinct of loiterers.

“She said, ‘I don’t get paid enough to tell people to leave,’” Darby, who was clearly agitated, said outside the precinct.

“That’s not what I said,” Carter said a short time later. “I said the county’s not paying me enough. You can’t make grown folks do nothing.”