Mississippians recently had a chance to see their election process up close. In two very close elections, in Canton and Hattiesburg, I represented the challengers in election contests. The cases both went to trial in July.
The integrity of our election process was also on trial. In both cases, the courts ordered new elections because that integrity was found lacking.
Peeking behind the curtain into the voting booth was unsettling. We proved instances of illegal votes, voter fraud, and other misconduct. In the process, we also showed that Mississippi’s election laws are outdated, confusing, and in need of reform.
In Canton, alderman candidate Ray Rosamond contested a 4-vote loss in the May 7 Democratic Primary. In that election, the most significant problems were actually the people in charge of running it.
One member of the Democratic Municipal Executive Committee, Kimberly Readus, literally cussed poll workers, tore up a voted affidavit ballot, and tried to force poll workers to allow people who were not on the poll books to vote on the voting machines anyway. The court found that her “profanity and loud and boisterous and abusive bullying tactics” amounted to a “breach of the peace” and “intimidated poll workers, voters, and intended voters, such as to severely disrupt the democratic process.”
The Chair of the Democratic Committee, Robert Chinn, less flamboyant than Readus, was just as determined to do things his way, as opposed to following election law. Chinn, during the ballot counting process, shouted down objections and proceeded to follow “the law according to Chinn.” In doing so, Chinn caused at least five affidavit ballots to be counted (in a four-vote race), even though the voters did not live in the Ward.
There were other problems, including improper voter assistance and improper handling of absentee ballots. Poll workers were called “monkeys” by Rosamond’s opponent, Rodriquez Brown and his supporters. At the close of trial, the court noted that neither poll workers nor voters, in Canton or anywhere in America, should have to endure what happened on May 7.
Because of the court’s strong ruling, maybe they won’t have to. The court threw out the May 7 results, ordered a new election, and referred Ms. Readus for presentment to the grand jury.
And, thanks to a new law sponsored by Rep. Rita Martinson, the folks in charge of Canton’s Democratic primary will not be eligible to run elections again. Martinson’s bill raises the qualifications for elections officials. None too soon.
In the June 4 election for Hattiesburg Mayor, Dave Ware finished 37 votes behind incumbent Johnny DuPree, out of over 9,700 votes cast. But that result was marred by a total breakdown in the absentee balloting process and shocking instances of illegal voting.
Hundreds of absentee ballots failed to comply with mandatory provisions of Mississippi law. They were counted anyway, giving DuPree well more than his margin of victory. The evidence showed improper influence of absentee voters and lax security and recordkeeping for absentee ballots. One ballot cast by a Ware supporter simply disappeared.
The trial of Ware v. DuPree reads like a Grisham novel, and would take a novel’s length to do it justice. It’s a story that needs to be told.
We proved that a 17-year-old voted absentee from the county jail.
We also showed that a “curbside” voter at the Dixie Pine precinct (someone too disabled to enter the polling place but who voted in person from his vehicle, with help from the poll managers) was actually a healthy 22-year-old man who was in San Antonio, Texas on Election Day. He did not vote, but someone else voted in his name.
Opponents of voter ID have said that ID is a “solution in search of a problem” because there are no examples of people impersonating other voters. Wrong. Voter ID, properly enforced, would have stopped these illegal votes.
Disenfranchised felons voted, even though their prior crimes made them ineligible. Sheriff’s personnel carried one of those voters from jail to vote in person on June 4. We proved four ineligible felons voted; we don’t know how many more might have.
The trial itself involved allegations of witness intimidation, jury “retaliation,” and a 9-3 verdict for Ware that somehow devolved into a deadlocked 8-4 vote. As in Madison County, the Forrest County District Attorney says she is investigating.
Mississippi’s Supreme Court has said that the “integrity of our government can be no greater than the integrity of elections which put our government officials in office.” No matter what else Rosamond and Ware go on to do, they have already won big for greater integrity for Mississippi elections.
Cory T. Wilson is a Madison attorney with Heidelberg Steinberger Colmer & Burrow, P.A. Follow Cory on Twitter, @CoryWilsonMS, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.HERE!