Democratic chair makes complaints – Asks for worker pay, fewer white people

Published 1:11 am Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Panola County Democratic Party Chairman Lorene Robinson took the Board of Supervisors and the Election Commission to task at Monday’s meeting in the Batesville Courthouse. 

She was aggrieved by the removal of fellow Democrat Percy Bruce as a poll worker from the November general election, and upset that white people were assigned to work the Patton Lane Community Center precinct.

Board President Cole Flint had Robinson at the top of the agenda for the meeting, just under the name of James Pattridge, a citizen who is angry with the Sheriff’s Office. Pattridge, however, could not attend the meeting because he was ordered to not enter the Courthouse last Thursday in a hearing before Municipal Judge Jay Westfaul (see related story on this page).

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Robinson first asked the supervisors to approve a payment of $175 for Bruce, who was originally scheduled to serve as a poll worker, but was removed from the list by the Election Commission (in a 5-0 vote) when he was found to have passed out a sample ballot, marked for Democratic and Independent candidates, on the steps of the Batesville Courthouse.

State law expressly prohibits poll workers from passing out any marked sample ballots or taking part in any type of campaigning. Bruce, 90, has been a poll worker longer than any other person in Panola County and should have known that most basic tenet of election law, countered Election Commission Wayne Belk.

Robinson said because Bruce was not near a regular precinct when he gave out the marked ballot, the piece of paper failed to meet the standard set by law. Belk said the fact that Bruce handed out a marked ballot whether “at the Courthouse or in Biloxi” he disqualified himself from serving in that particular election.

Belk also reminded the supervisors that when absentee ballots are being cast in the Circuit Clerk’s Office then that office becomes a de facto precinct. 

Robinson asked for a public apology from Election Commissioner Kaye Smythe and a $175 stipend for Bruce. She got neither.

“You’re asking me to pay Mr. Bruce for hours he didn’t work?” Flint asked.

“I’m asking you to pay him for hours he didn’t work,” Robinson answered.

All five supervisors agreed that Bruce was rightfully removed from the list of poll workers, some having already reviewed closed circuit television footage from the Courthouse that shows Bruce obtaining a sample ballot from the Circuit Clerk’s office, sitting in the lobby to mark the ballot, then handing it to a woman on the steps just outside the front door.

Robinson also took the opportunity to complain about the Commission’s election day assignments for poll workers. The Commissioners attempt to place an equal number of political party representatives at each precinct when possible, in accordance with state and federal guidelines.

Because Mississippi does not have party registration, the Commissions often rely on what approved and trained poll workers say about their party preferences, and also try to have a near-equal mix of black and white workers at each polling place.

Robinson disagrees with that system, pointing out that Patton Lane Community Center has a great majority of minority voters and should therefore have the same representation in poll workers.

“Patton Lane Community Center is the only thing we have left,” Robinson said. “It means a whole lot to us. Not only to Mr. Bruce, but also to me.”

“If Patton Lane is owned by Patton Lane and we have workers there that can work the primary with no problem, why would you move them somewhere else and put white people to work in a place that is owned by black folks?” she asked.

The board took no action with Robinson’s requests, only saying that they believed the Election Commissioners to have acted properly in the removal of Bruce, and reminding her that oversight in the placement of poll workers and  managers is, by statute, the duty of the commissioners.

Belk also informed the supervisors that three other approved poll workers were also removed during the last election cycle – two for having yard signs or campaign material and another for making a political post of Facebook – and must also wait until the next election to be considered again.