Commissioner Election

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Despite snow, election today for commissioner

By Billy Davis

The poll manager who oversaw the Como precinct during the Nov. 23 runoff refused to follow state law after poll watchers challenged voters’ ballots, an unnamed observer for the Mississippi Secretary of State reported.

Mississippi election law requires the manager and poll workers to immediately rule on a challenged ballot, deciding whether the poll watcher’s challenge is legitimate or not.

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 But only one such challenge was considered at Como, and only after the polls closed, and by then poll workers couldn’t recall why the challenge had been issued and refused to vote, according to the state report.

Poll watchers had previously told The Panolian they verbally challenged more than a dozen votes throughout the 12-hour day at the precinct.

The report shows the state observer did more than watch, telling poll manager Brenda Gates at one point to “follow the law when votes are challenged,” though Gates claimed she was, according to the report.

“It is quite evident,” the observer wrote after the polls closed, “that the poll manager was not going to follow the procedures as outlined within the law.”

Gates is overseeing the Como precinct today during the special election for Northern District transportation commissioner.  

A copy of the eight-page report, obtained by The Panolian, is written as a first-hand account from the Secretary of State observer. He visited two Sardis precincts during the morning, then traveled to Como shortly after noon and remained until after the polls closed at 7 p.m.

An observer for the Mississippi Attorney General, and two observers representing the federal Department of Justice, were visiting Panola County precincts during the run-off election.

The Attorney’s General’s office refused to release its observers report, citing its own election report as privileged information that could be part of future legal proceedings.

No Como report,

agency claimed

The Panolian almost didn’t get a Secretary of State report about Como either. A spokesman for the state agency repeatedly claimed the Secretary of State observer did not file a written report about the Como precinct, and repeated attempts by The Panolian to obtain a report were rebuffed.

“I can assure you, once again, no written report was filed for the November 23rd election in Como, other than the checklists…” the spokesman wrote in an e-mail. “… I have addressed your questions and satisfied your request.”

The checklist is a “quick guide” used by the observer to check off a list of legal requirements, such as posting voting hours and a sample ballot, within the polling place.

After repeated requests for the report, the spokesman announced a Como report had been found — only after a reporter requested to interview Assistant Secretary of State Heath Hillman.

Observer walked

 into trouble

Some Panola Countians have claimed ongoing mismanagement or outright corruption at the Como precinct, and it remains among the most closely scrutinized precincts in Panola County.

Como also enjoyed the largest turnout during the runoff, with unofficial totals showing 926 ballots were counted there in the race for Panola sheriff.

The latest report from the runoff does little to curb such complaints.

The Secretary of State observer wrote that he arrived at Como’s public library at approximately 12:30, immediately finding himself in the middle of a loud dispute when he walked in the door.

A poll watcher was claiming a poll worker had offered to help a voter who had not requested it. That claim led to a challenge from the poll watcher, and the observer writes that Gates was asked by the poll watcher if she was going to address the challenge. She refused.

“Immediately all four poll watchers stood up and presented to the poll workers and the poll managers copies of the law showing explicitly the section describing how challenged votes were to be handled,” the observer wrote.

At that point, a poll watcher pulled the Secretary of State observer aside, in a separate room, and thanked him for coming to the precinct.

An observer for the Attorney General was also present, and apparently observed the conflict, but was of little help to the second state observer.

“I asked him what he thought about the confrontation and he basically made no comment,” wrote the Secretary of State observer.  

The Secretary of State report continues from that point:

•At 1:05 p.m., the observer introduces himself to Gates and told her to “follow the law.”

The observer writes that he told Gates he did not “completely observe” what had occurred when he had entered the precinct. But the observer assured Gates that he intended, from that moment on, to “document everything that I see and/or hear.”

•At 1:45, the observer watched an elderly lady cast her ballot, assisted by a second voter.

“I never heard the elderly lady state who she wanted to vote for,” the observer wrote.

A poll watcher also informed the observer at that time that 15 votes had been challenged by then — with no response from the poll manager or poll workers.

•At 2 p.m., the observer went outside the precinct to witness a curbside ballot. An elderly man was voting. A second man, who had driven him, “was pointing to the name on the ballot that the elderly man needed to vote for.”

A poll watcher challenged the vote, but the report states that Gates allowed the vote to count.   

•At 2:50 p.m., the driver who had brought the elderly man at 2 p.m. brought another voter, an elderly female, to the Como precinct.

Two poll watchers and the observer watched outside the precinct, where the observer again wrote that the man “read and attempted to instruct the voter on how to vote.”

A poll watcher protested and the man “backed away” from helping.  

•At 4:50 p.m., the observer talked with a man who had been allowed to vote, even though his name had been marked as voted.

In the hallway, the voter also claimed another family member was also marked as voted. But that person worked in Memphis and was unable to be in Como to vote.

At 5:35 p.m., the Attorney General observer told the Secretary of State observer that he had pulled the poll manager aside and told her complaints were being made to the Jackson office that she was behind the voting machines too much.

“He then told me that beyond any question, the poll workers here needed more training,” the Secretary of State observer wrote.

The same observer wrote that, at 7 p.m. when the polls closed, a Department of Justice official had to instruct the Como bailiff to announce that the polls were officially closed.

“It appears that the bailiff does not know the duties of the position of bailiff,” the observer wrote.

The Secretary of State observer then witnessed the handling of absentee ballots. Poll workers failed to verify the required signature across the envelope flap nor if the notary stamp was affixed to the envelope.

“They just opened the envelopes and pulled the ballots out and marked the names in the roll book as voted and wrote the names in the register,” the observer wrote.

He continued, “When I asked the poll manager whether they were checking the absentee ballots correctly according to the procedures that were outlined in the law, she stated that they were.”  

Unofficial results from the Como precinct showed 817 votes were cast in the runoff.

A total of 105 absentee ballots were accepted. Two absentees were rejected.

Seventeen curbside ballots were also counted.

The final tally recorded only one contested ballot.

At approximately 8 p.m., poll watchers said they were challenging the absentee ballots after observing that they were not processed properly.

A poll watcher then announced they would challenge the absentees later that night, at the county courthouse in Batesville.