Six days after the Ward 1 absentee ballot box was left unsealed for an unknown time period in the city registrar’s office, the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office has still not responded to multiple attempts from The Dispatch on how the miscue could impact the validity of those votes.
City officials, for their part, say they consulted the Secretary of State’s election division after the incident last week and were simply told to carry on.
“Kyle Kirkpatrick in the Secretary of State’s office told (Registrar) Brenda (Williams) that there was nothing that can be done at this point,” Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong told The Dispatch on Monday. “If someone files a challenge after the election, we’ll consult with the Secretary of State’s office as far as how to proceed if that happens.”
A poll-watcher on Wednesday pointed out the seal, a plastic lock located toward the bottom of the box, was not on the Ward 1 absentee box Wednesday afternoon in the registrar’s office at City Hall. Seals were properly in place on boxes for the other five wards.
Armstrong told The Dispatch last week the boxes were on the floor up against a wall in the office, and he speculated someone had accidentally kicked the lock off as they were passing by. The seal was replaced upon discovery, Armstrong said, but it was unknown how long it had been missing. He told The Dispatch on Monday the boxes are no longer being kept on the floor.
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.”
However, the Secretary of State’s Office has failed to respond to two emails The Dispatch has sent since last week inquiring about the protocols for handling ballots in an unsealed box or if that affects the validity of the vote. The first email was sent on Thursday. Then on Monday, a reporter spoke by phone to a representative for the press office who requested the questions be emailed a second time. There was no reply by press time.
The city’s election commission, appointed by the city council, must field any election challenge or recount request. On Monday, election commission chair Penesha McDowell-Harrison told The Dispatch she didn’t know about the Ward 1 box being left unsealed last week.
“At this time I have no answers for you because I was not aware of it,” she said.
Dispatch Reporter Slim Smith contributed to this report.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.