JACKSON — In hearings over two disputed Mississippi legislative races, testimony showed the imperfections of elections.
Choosing government officials is a human endeavor, so stumbles are inevitable. The question is: How many stumbles are acceptable before an election should be overturned?
Testimony showed that sometimes a clerk’s signature doesn’t cross the sealed flap of an envelope holding an absentee ballot, as required.
Sometimes, people move and don’t update their address on election records within 30 days. They vote by affidavit but there are disputes about whether their vote should count, even if they live in the same legislative district.
Mississippi has had a voter identification law in effect since the 2014 elections, but some people forget to bring photo ID to the polls. They can retrieve it and return to vote. Or, they can vote by affidavit and return within 10 days to show ID. If don’t return, their ballot is rejected.
The disputed Senate race was in District 37 in Adams, Amite, Franklin and Pike counties. Certified results showed Democratic former Sen. Bob Dearing won by 64 votes over Republican Sen. Melanie Sojourner. It was a rematch from 2011, when Sojourner unseated Dearing after he served 32 years. Both are from Natchez.
Sojourner said the 2015 election was so spoiled by imperfections that she should be declared the winner or voting should be redone in a precinct she questioned. The Senate voted 47-3 to reject her challenge last week, and Dearing was inaugurated.
Sojourner questioned the security of absentee ballots and other materials stored in cardboard boxes after the election in Adams County, where Dearing received more absentee votes than Sojourner. The chairman of the Adams County Election Commission testified the boxes were sealed and kept in locked rooms, and vote totals were securely stored on multiple computer servers.
Sojourner also questioned the behavior of poll workers at the Bude precinct in Franklin County. A Republican poll watcher testified that she believes she saw more than 100 violations of election laws at Bude, including what she believed were instances of poll workers standing at electronic voting machines and casting ballots for some voters. Under questioning, she said she couldn’t see the screens but based her belief on how poll workers’ shoulders were moving.
It was her word against that of five poll workers, who all testified that they believed they had done their jobs properly and hadn’t provided illegal assistance.
The disputed House race was in District 79 in Smith and Jasper counties. Certified results showed 4,589 votes each for Democratic Rep. Bo Eaton of Taylorsville, who was seeking a sixth term, and Republican challenger Mark Tullos of Raleigh. Eaton won a tiebreaker in a drawing of straws overseen by the governor and secretary of state, but Tullos petitioned the House to declare him the winner. Tullos said some votes were improperly counted and the race never should have tied.
Smith County election officials consulted the attorney in charge of the secretary of state’s elections division about whether to count affidavit ballots cast by five people who had moved within District 79 but hadn’t updated their addresses within 30 days on election records. The attorney told them to count the votes, and they did.
But the chairman of a House committee handling the election dispute, Republican Rep. Mark Baker of Brandon, said the five votes should not have counted because the voters didn’t update their addresses.
The House on Wednesday voted 67-49, mostly along party lines, to declare Tullos the winner, giving Republicans a three-fifths supermajority in the chamber. By Friday, his inauguration hadn’t been scheduled.
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