Voter Help

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 19, 2011

Little help from state as ‘helper’ questions persist

By Billy Davis

It’s a straightforward question as election problems persist in Panola County: what are Mississippi’s election rules for helping voters cast a ballot on Election Day?

For example, can a so-called “voter helper” carry a limitless number of voters to precincts, then help each one of them vote if they request help?  

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Can a voter helper literally put a voter’s finger on the voting machine, as longtime voter helper Edith Cole suggested to The Panolian in recent days?

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

Also, where does the “voter helper” stand, and where do poll workers stand, when a voter asks for help at the voting machine?

 “We never stand at the machine next to the voter,” one poll manager told The Panolian this week. “We stand where we’re looking at the voter, not at the machine, and then help them proceed.”

The poll manager went on to explain, however, that “we do that because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do… but we’re not sure.”

Credit and criticism

The Panolian reported Tuesday that poll workers and poll watchers complained August 2 that Cole was persistently standing beside voters at the Patton Lane Community Center.

The same election officials also credited a county Democratic official, Rufus Manley, for confronting Cole at Patton Lane, where his action stopped her from coming into the precinct with voters.

Manley’s action is also in question, however, since Patton Lane bailiff Percy Bruce criticized Manley at the same time others were praising him.

“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.”

Voters trained by helper

Cole said she helps candidates by transporting voters to Patton Lane and to other precincts, where she apparently helps those same voters select candidates.

Cole also told a reporter that voters she transports know to request voting assistance, then ask for her, when they register to vote. If they fail to do so, then the poll managers step in to assist per state election laws, Cole pointed out.

The “voter helper” also recited the three legal reasons a voter can receive help: if they are blind, disabled, or illiterate.

A voter is supposed to declare one of those three reasons when they ask for help, though it’s unclear if poll workers are required, or allowed, to ask for a declaration if the voter fails to cite one.

Meanwhile, Panola County election commissioner Ronald McMinn said in the same story that he was hoping to get “clear answers” from the Secretary of State and the Attorney General’s office.

McMinn said someone from the state attorney general’s office, following up on his request for help, contacted Circuit Clerk Joe Reid.

Said Reid: “They said if you need help, the law says you must ask for help…after you help them you must leave… you can bring in one (voter) at a time, you just can’t come in with six.”

Newspaper sought clarification

The Panolian this week also sought answers from state officials. Here is what the newspaper learned:

An inquiry by The Panolian to the Secretary of State’s office yielded little help, after a reporter asked for state rules about where to stand and the legality of pushing buttons for a voter.

The spokesman directed the reporter to the 2010 County Election Handbook, which does not seem to address either issue in its 41-page volume.  

When the reporter noted the handbook fails to address either issue and persisted with the same two questions, the spokesman suggested contacting the Attorney General’s office.

“You would need to contact the Attorney General’s office for that information, since it is not addressed in the election code,” said Director of Communications Pamela Weaver.

The Panolian also sought an interview with Heath Hillman, who oversees the Elections Division for Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann. The interview was not granted.

The Elections Division trains election officials and helps local officials carry out their election-related responsibilities, according to its Web site.

The Panolian also separately sent the same questions — where to stand and placing fingers on the machine — to the state Attorney General’s office. A spokesman for that state agency directed the reporter to the same County Election Handbook produced by the Secretary of State.

In an e-mail to The Panolian, Attorney General spokesman Jan Schaffer pointed to a statement in the Election Handbook:

“It is the position of the Secretary of State’s Office that a voter’s declaration should be honored unless it clearly appears to the Managers that the declaration is untrue.”

“We don’t have anything more to add to this information,” she wrote.