This year, as in every other election year, the clerks in the Lowndes County Circuit Clerk’s Office are busy helping hundreds of voters wanting to cast absentee ballots, by taking their phone calls, helping them vote at the courthouse and sending ballots to those who have requested them in the mail.
But unlike every other year, over the last three weeks, the office has received five or six phone calls from individuals who said they never requested the ballots they received in the mail.
“One lady said she worked at the polls and she always comes in and votes,” Lowndes County Circuit Clerk Teresa Barksdale said. “Some (have been from) family members that have gone behind and checked on their parents. They are (their parents’) primary care giver, and they know they did not request these.”
In each case, the clerk’s office received the requests for the ballots in the mail, with no phone number or forwarding address, which Barksdale said is not unusual. To request a mail-in ballot, a voter must give their name, address, reason for voting absentee and their signature. If the name and address match a registered voter in the county, Barksdale’s office mails them a package containing a ballot, an application, voting instructions and two envelopes — one for the application and one for the ballot.
This is the first year Barksdale remembers receiving phone calls from people who said they didn’t request those packages — particularly troubling considering the request must contain the voter’s signature.
“I can’t really say what is going on (but) obviously it’s somebody impersonating them if they themselves did not request it,” Barksdale said.
The fraught history of absentee voting
Mississippi law allows voters who are disabled, 65 or older or otherwise unable to vote on Election Day to vote absentee in person at the county circuit clerk’s office (or, in the case of municipal elections, the city registrar’s office) or by mailing in their ballots. The mailed-in ballots must be signed and witnessed by someone 18 or older, and in most cases notarized. The notary and witnesses cannot be a candidate or candidate’s spouse. Barksdale said as of Thursday, her office has received more than 700 absentee ballots, including both walk-ins and mail-ins.
Absentee voting has long been a source of contention in Lowndes County and Columbus. In June 2017, a month after municipal elections, The Dispatch reported that some candidates had paid individuals to canvass areas of the city to witness absentee votes for disabled citizens, though those witnesses said they refused to influence voters toward one candidate or another.
The article also reported the same election saw 1,069 absentee ballots cast in Columbus, more than Meridian, Starkville, Hattiesburg, Tupelo, Vicksburg and Pascagoula combined.
In August of this year, a few weeks prior to a special election for city council, Lowndes County District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks called a press conference to announce he was contacting the Secretary of State’s and Attorney General’s offices requesting an investigation into how the absentee votes were being cast in that election after he learned a vast majority of mail-in absentees were associated with a particular candidate’s campaign.
Last week, Brooks told The Dispatch he plans to reach out again to the AG’s Office after Tuesday’s election about the phone calls Barksdale’s office is receiving.
“I’m determined to get this issue addressed,” said Brooks, who is running as an incumbent for District 5 supervisor as a Democrat against Marty Turner in Tuesday’s election. (Barksdale is also running for circuit clerk in the election, but she is unopposed.)
While Brooks said witnesses used to aid disabled voters in good faith — he even recruited some of them back in the late 1980s and ’90s, according to previous reporting by The Dispatch — the process has gotten “out of control” over the last few years.
Now election officials in the city and county know he’s on a “crusade against absentee ballot fraud.” He thinks that’s why the circuit clerk’s office contacted him about the phone calls the office has been receiving over the last three weeks.
Brooks believes someone obtained a list of registered voters who had voted absentee in the past and began requesting ballots from the circuit clerk’s office in those people’s names — either because they don’t know any better or because they want to influence voters toward a particular candidate or party. Given some other issues he’s seen with absentee ballots — including ballots not being filled out properly and applications not being signed — he thinks it may be the former.
“There are a number of ballots up there that suggest to me that people don’t know what they’re doing,” Brooks said. “But it’s still against the law when you fraudulently sign somebody’s name.”
A potential investigation
Barksdale said after the election she plans to contact District Attorney Scott Colom to tell him about the requests and let him talk to some of the families of those who received ballots they didn’t ask for. Brooks thinks there may be enough of a paper trail to launch an investigation.
Spokespeople from the Secretary of State’s and AG’s offices told The Dispatch they could not say what law, if any, has been violated in this case. However, state statute says, “Any person who presents to the registrar an oral or written request for an absentee ballot application for a voter entitled to vote absentee by mail, other than the elector who seeks to vote by absentee ballot, shall, in the presence of the registrar, sign the application and print on the application his or her name and address and the name of the elector for whom the application is being requested in the place provided for on the application for that purpose.” Violators could face up to a $5,000 fine and five years in prison.
Barksdale added there are failsafes in place to ensure those who received ballots they didn’t request can still vote on Tuesday, which is what she’s been directing them to do.
Everyone who votes on Tuesday will have their names recorded in a poll book, Barksdale said. After the polls close at 7 p.m., poll workers check those names against the names of those who voted absentee. Anyone who voted in both places will have their absentee ballot voided.
“Say I voted absentee, but then I came in (on Election Day) and wanted to vote,” she said. “When they come to Teresa Barksdale, they’ll say, ‘Oh, she voted, so we’re going to reject that absentee.’ So there’s no standard of double voting.”
For now, she said, that’s the best failsafe in place against voter fraud.
“That’s about the best you can get,” she said.
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