Election Commissioners

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 28, 2011

Election Commissioner Dorothy Wilbourne (far left, in hat) listens to a comment from the audience during a testy meeting Thursday in which the election commission was choosing poll workers for the General Election. Audience members complained most about poll workers in Como, which falls in Wilbourne’s district. The Panolian photo by Billy Davis

Commissioners catch heat over Como precinct

By Billy Davis

A showdown over selecting poll workers at the Como voting precinct unfolded Thursday morning in Batesville, where the Panola County Election Commission was selecting people to work in the November 8 General Election.

An organized group of citizens, many of them active in the local Republican Party, were filling most of the seats in the county boardroom when the five election commissioners began their meeting shortly after 10 o’clock.

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The selection of poll workers fell under new business and chairman Ronald McMinn started in order with District 1 commissioner Dorothy Wilbourne.

Wilbourne began by naming poll workers for the Como precinct, which immediately began a back-and-forth debate over names she recommended.  

“These exact workers were at that polling place last November, when quite a few laws were broken there,” said Dee Ruhl, who is from Como.

To make her point, Ruhl held up a copy of a Mississippi Secretary of State report from the General Election in 2010. In the report, a Secretary of State observer wrote five pages of election-related problems at the Como precinct, she said.

“They committed crimes,” Ruhl said. “They broke the law.”

“I have selected who I’m going to select,” Wilbourne replied, though her personal pick of poll workers didn’t remain intact as the meeting rolled on.

A few minutes later, Wilbourne agreed to remove her sister, Arilla Kerney, from the poll worker list after McMinn, answering a question from Bonnie Land, called appointing family members “unethical,” though not illegal.

Wilbourne later pointed out that Commissioner Jimmy Herron had also picked a family member, his sister. He immediately agreed to remove her from the poll worker list.  

“If my sister can’t work your sister can’t work,” Wilbourne told Herron.

When audience members asked McMinn and commissioners to choose Como poll workers, he and others indicated they were hesitant to do so.

“I don’t know the people at Como,” McMinn replied.

“I can’t come up with names if I don’t know people in District 1,” Commissioner Jerry Perkins said minutes later.

Responding to a request from audience members, Herron made a motion to reject Wilbourne’s recommended list of poll workers. Perkins seconded the motion, which failed when Wilbourne, McMinn and Commissioner Julius Harris voted against it.

After that vote the topic moved the Como precinct to other District 1 precincts, then to other commissioners and their precincts. Most of those recommendations breezed through, though there was debate, and some confusion, when audience members recommended names of trained poll workers to Wilbourne and other commissioners.

The topic returned to Como poll workers — and the Secretary of State’s report of Como — approximately fifty minutes later.

Ruhl and other audience members appeared visibly upset when McMinn and other commissioners said they had not read the report. It was made public in late 2010 and copies have since been obtained by The Panolian and Ruhl among others.

In a January 2011 story, The Panolian reported that the election observer claimed Como poll workers failed to honor challenged votes and failed to follow proper procedures for accepting or rejecting absentee ballots, even after the observer hinted that they were not following the law.  

The report also described how people were telling others who to vote for during curbside voting, and described how a voter told the observer a relative was marked as voted on the voting registry, when that relative was in Memphis at work.

That voter also told the observer his name had been marked as voted but he was allowed to cast a ballot, according to the report.

The report also noted that an observer for the Attorney General’s office commented to the Secretary of State observer that Como poll workers needed more training.

 “I didn’t get a copy of it,” McMinn said of the election report.  

Perkins, who was reading Ruhl’s copy, said he was suspicious of the report since the name of the observer was not written on the document. The report also did not name the poll workers at Como, he pointed out.

“Nobody has been convicted of any election-related crimes,” McMinn told the gathered crowd.

“Why wait until someone is convicted?” an audience member asked. “You should be examining the report…You don’t wait for something like this to fester.”

During discussion of her poll worker picks, Wilbourne asked for the commission to recess until a later date, then later asked for McMinn to poll commissioners on the phone to pick Como poll workers. McMinn rejected both suggestions.

“I’ll go to Como and make your job easier,” an audience member, who said she was a trained poll worker, jokingly told Wilbourne.

“You can make it easier on me if you let me do my job and go on about my business,” Wilbourne responded.

With Wilbourne’s sister gone from the Como precinct, the election commission allowed the other poll workers to remain there — but also voted to add two more names to Como’s list of poll workers.

In two separate votes, the election commission voted first to increase the poll worker numbers from six to eight, then voted to add Deirdre Newman and Darrell Brown.

The motions passed 3-2, with Wilbourne and Harris voting against both board motions.  

Newman was Wilbourne’s pick to work at Como and several audience members suggested commissioners appoint Brown.

Wilbourne told a reporter after the meeting she was not adding Brown to her list of poll workers since she had not suggested him.