City officials are trying to determine protocols for how to proceed with Ward 1 absentee ballots after the box for those ballots was left unlocked in the city registrar’s office for an unknown time period on Wednesday.
Columbus Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong confirmed to The Dispatch that the Ward 1 box was unlocked at City Hall for some time Wednesday — a time when voters could cast absentee ballots in person — but the lock was replaced after a poll-watcher pointed it out to him and City Registrar Brenda Williams. Neither he nor Williams knew how long it had been unlocked, Armstrong said.
He said Williams has contacted the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office to determine what to do about the ballots in the box.
No other ward’s absentee ballot box was unlocked at any time, Armstrong said, and he believes the lock for the Ward 1 box fell off by accident.
The ballot boxes are located on the floor of the registrar’s office, pushed against the wall. Each box has a padlock securing the bottom of the box. At the top of each box is a slot where voters can place their ballots.
“I’m sure what happened, somebody was walking up there — obviously we didn’t take it off — but somebody hit it with their foot,” he said. “… That’s the logical explanation to me. I don’t know that, but I assume that’s what happened.”
He emphasized no city official had left the box unlocked intentionally.
Williams declined to comment to The Dispatch.
State law requires that while absentee voting is being conducted in the days leading up to a municipal election, in-person absentee voters must place their ballots in a sealed box in the registrar’s office, according to an email to The Dispatch from the Secretary of State’s Office. The email added Mississippi law “provides for penalties against officials who proceed with an election without having the ballot box locked and secured or whose neglect causes votes to be lost and/or deprive electors of their suffrage.”
Representatives from the Secretary of State’s Office did not answer The Dispatch’s questions about the validity of any ballots placed in the box during the time it was left unlocked.
Will Sanders, a member of the A Better Columbus political group, told The Dispatch he and his wife, Leslie Sorrell, reported the unlocked box when they were poll-watching in the registrar’s office shortly after 1 p.m. Wednesday. He said the unsealed Ward 1 box was pushed up against a wall on the floor with the other sealed boxes.
“We … went to get the absentee ballot information, and I looked down and saw the seal was missing off the Ward 1 box,” Sanders said.
Both Sanders and Armstrong said they had been in the office other times throughout the week and had not noticed the lock being off prior to Wednesday afternoon, but they both added they hadn’t specifically been looking.
Incumbent Councilwoman Ethel Stewart and her independent challenger Kallie Phillips are running in Ward 1.
Stewart was elected in 2019 to finish the unexpired term of her brother, Gene Taylor, after he died. ABC has endorsed Phillips, though the candidate has not acknowledged any affiliation with the group.