Voting help

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Commissioner seeks state answers on voter helpers

By Billy Davis
Panola election commissioner Ronald McMinn said he is seeking a “clear answer” from state election officials about legal rules for helping voters cast an electronic ballot.

Questions about so-called “voter helpers” surfaced in an otherwise quiet primary two weeks ago, according to McMinn and other election officials interviewed by The Panolian.   

Mississippi election law states that a blind, disabled or illiterate voter can request voting assistance from anyone they choose. But accusations that the law is abused date back several elections in Panola County.

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The most recent accusation came in 2010, when the Patton Lane precinct in Batesville was named in a statewide Election Day report from the Mississippi Secretary of State.

At Patton Lane, an observer for the Secretary of State wrote that a “number of people were permitted behind the voting machines as people were voting.”

The report stated the behind-the-machines activity appeared to be “inappropriate voter assistance.”

A year later, a number of election officials are describing similar problems at the same precinct, where approximately 700 votes were cast August 2.  

Rufus Manley, who chairs the Panola County Democratic Party, said there were “small incidents” at voting precincts August 2, most of them corrected quickly. He also said, however, he heard several complaints about questionable “voter helping” at Patton Lane Community Center.

Poll workers and poll watchers at the Patton Lane precinct said Manley confronted Batesville resident Edith Cole for continually returning to the precinct with voters, then standing behind the voting machines with them as they cast a ballot.

Cole is a well-known resident who is credited for holding political sway in the community.

“I didn’t do anything that I wasn’t allowed to do, because I had already asked what I could do,” Cole said last week at her small grocery store that is cater-cornered from the community center.   

Cole didn’t deny she transported people to the polls for candidates, or that she helped voters cast a ballot. But she went on to say she had asked specific questions at a pre-election meeting of the Democratic Party that was led by Manley.

“I was told I can’t put my finger on the button to vote,” Cole said. “But I can put somebody else’s finger on the button.”

Cole last surfaced in politics last December, when her name was repeatedly read aloud on absentee ballot envelopes during a canvass of ballots after the special election for sheriff.  

A person who assists someone else with filling out the absentee ballot is required to sign the envelope.

Cole was also called as a witness in the Pittman vs. Mettetal trial in 2007, when the Batesville attorney was challenging the state senator’s slim win in a Democratic Primary.  

Cole, who had worked for Pittman, claimed on the witness stand that McMinn told her she was allowed to push buttons for voters.

Asked about Cole’s presence at Patton Lane, Manley told a reporter he did tell an individual on August 2 to stop walking in with voters at the community center. He would not name the person.

“I don’t like calling names,” he said.

Manley also volunteered that this person — still unmentioned — also took voters to precincts at Pope and Courtland on August 2.

Cole went farther than that, telling a reporter she also transported voters to Eureka, Macedonia-Concord and Curtis-Locke Station precincts.

“We raised a hundred dollars worth of hell about her,” Gary Ramsey, a Patton Lane poll watcher for candidate Craig Sheley, said of Cole.

Ramsey said Manley did eventually confront Cole but also claimed the voter helper simply changed her tactic. Instead of going into the precinct with a voter, she waited outside for voters to request assistance from her. She was then summoned by poll workers and walked into the precinct.

Cole disputed that scenario and said McMinn told her August 2 that she had to wait outside in an automobile while the voter went inside to vote.

Stan Smythe, who served as Republican manager at Patton Lane, said he watched Manley confront a woman who Smythe saw standing behind voting machines.

“I give Rufus credit. He corrected it and she didn’t come back (inside),” Smythe said. “She kept coming back but stayed outside.”

Smythe also said he pointed out to the Democratic poll manager that some poll workers were also standing behind voting machines while voters cast a ballot.

“I told her I’m not sure of a lot but I don’t think we can go behind there,” he recalled.

Annie Lou Curtis, a second Republican poll worker, said she was surprised that Democratic poll workers at Patton Lane were constantly helping people vote throughout the day.

“I’ve worked at several polls for five years,” Curtis said,“ and that was more constant activity than I’ve ever seen at any other place.”

Percy Bruce, who served as bailiff at Patton Lane two weeks ago, said he was unaware that Manley had confronted Cole and said he disagreed with the confrontation.   

“I don’t see how he could do that,” Bruce said. “If a voter asks for her help, the voter has a right to choose who helps them.”

In a separate matter, former circuit clerk candidate Willie Odom claimed he witnessed Cole’s husband, Ferris Cole, hand out sample ballots from his blue pickup in front of the community center.

A reporter saw Ferris Cole ferrying voters to the Patton Lane precinct during the August 2 primary.

Mississippi election law requires a 30-foot clearance from the precinct entrance and also requires that election materials must be 150 feet from the precinct.

Odom also displayed a photo taken with a digital camera that revealed a woman walking past the pickup, with a piece of paper in her hand.

“He would call them over to the truck and give them a copy,” Odom said. “He did that five or six times.”  

Asked about Odom’s claim, Edith Cole said the photos fail to prove what was happening. “She could have been walking by with the ballot in her hand,” Cole said.

According to Bruce, he “chased away” someone from in front of the precinct who was caught passing out sample ballots, which was the only incident at Patton Lane on August 2, according to the bailiff.  

Asked if Ferris Cole was that person with the sample ballots, Bruce said it was.

Edith Cole said she takes voters to the polls to help candidates who have earned her support.  

“If I feel like they’re good for the community, and they’re going to be fair, I don’t mind helping them,” said Cole.

“I don’t charge. I do it because I enjoy it,” she said, answering a reporter’s question about being paid for the campaign work.

 “The only precinct I ever have a problem at is Patton Lane. Why is that?” she asked rhetorically. “It’s because Patton Lane is the largest box in Batesville. It’s all politics.”

McMinn, meanwhile, said he is seeking specific instructions from state officials before the run-off election next week, August 23.

“One question I have for the Secretary of State is if a person can come in and in and in,” McMinn said, without referring to Cole or anyone else.

“I know it doesn’t look good to bring lots of people into the polls,” he said. “Before the week is out, I want to have a clear answer.”

McMinn also pointed out that the Panola County Democratic Executive Committee and its Republican counterpart oversee party primaries and runoffs.

He further explained that the five-member county election commission handles the electronic voting machines but Democrats and Republicans select the precinct manager, poll workers and bailiff.

“The duty of enforcing the election law, that ultimately falls on the bailiff,” McMinn said.