New vote set for precinct 3

Published 1:27 pm Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Due to faulty poll records that caused voters to be denied the right to vote, a new Republican primary election will be held at the same time as the general election on Tuesday, June 2, in the race between Anna Bales Turnage and Jason Todd Lane for council person precinct 3.

That decision came after a hearing was held Monday evening in a contest of the election. The contest was filed by Turnage through her attorney Malcolm Jones of Pass Christian. A city redistricting took place in 2005 prior to the last municipal election, but maps were not correctly adjusted in either the city or county, leaving a number of streets out of precinct 3 and placing them in precinct 1.

Some of the streets improperly placed in precinct 1 included Evangeline, Holly Court, E. Sycamore, Orleans, and Audubon. On those streets live 152 registered voters of the total 1,075 precinct voting population, Jones said during the deliberation.

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One voter, Harold Blappert, said during his testimony that he attempted to vote at precinct 3 but was told he had to go to precinct 1. Since Blappert is a member of the county election commission he said he knew to ask for an affidavit ballot when his name was not on the voter rolls. He said he was denied the right to an affidavit ballot, even after presenting four requests for one.

Poll workers at precinct 3 testified that they did attempt to offer Blappert an affidavit ballot after he was informed his name was not listed. However, they speculate that Blappert did not hear them because he was loudly voicing his opposition to his name being left off the rolls.

Blappert said he left precinct 3 to vote in precinct 1 but he only voted for mayor, since the candidate for council he wished to vote for was not listed. Jones asked Blappert who he would have voted for had he had the chance to vote in his precinct. Blappert said he would have voted for Turnage. Jones also asked Blappert’s wife who she would have voted for, she too said Turnage.

During the primary election, Turnage was down by only two votes against Lane.

Avis Hayes, one of the poll workers at precinct 3, said she noticed that a number of people voting at her precinct were not on the books. She could not recall how many voters were affected. However, another poll worker in precinct 1, Jim Delaney, said he recalled as many as six people from precinct 3 coming to his polling place. He also recalled Blappert’s visit to his precinct and said he also told Blappert he was at the wrong precinct. Delaney said at that time Blappert told him that he was told by poll workers at precinct 3 to vote at precinct 1.

“Blappert told me, ‘I’m going to vote here and I’m going to vote for Anna,’” Delaney said.

Other voters Delaney talked to who were mistakenly sent to precinct 1 got mad, stormed out and swore to him that they were not going back to precinct 3 to vote after being told they were at the wrong precinct.

Apparently the problem with the rolls came when the city decided to use the county’s voter registration rolls and the city’s registration rolls had not been updated. City Clerk Priscilla Daniel said the county rolls were used because voter registration was no longer being handled by the city.

Pearl River County Circuit Clerk Vickie Harriel said she reminded Mayor Greg Mitchell prior to March of 2008 that the new maps were needed. After she did not get the maps, she talked to Interim City Manager Harvey Miller about getting the maps. On March 19, 2008, that information appeared to have been sent to Harriel’s office and was confirmed to be accurate by the city, but apparently some of those streets had been incorrectly listed and overlooked when city personnel confirmed the information.

“We’re all human and errors will always be made,” Harriel said.

Once the error was discovered on the May 5, election day, several people notified Daniel, Harriel and Turnage. Daniel said she got in contact with Harriel and corrected the information, but on only two of the streets. That information was sent out to the poll workers some time between 1:30 and 2 p.m. that day.

In all, seven people had already voted in the wrong precinct, Blappert included, and were unable to vote for a council person in that district, according to the testimony.

Another point of contention in the contest dealt with Republican Executive Commission member Gerald Cruthird participating on the resolution board, according to the contest motion. The resolution board’s responsibility is to take improperly marked ballots and attempt to determine the voter’s intent. Jones said in the election on May 5, a ballot appeared to have a marked area for Turnage erased and the area for Lane was then marked. Jones attributed this to the use of the incorrect pencils, since pencils without erasers were supposed to be used during the election to avoid such a problem. In such an instance, that ballot is supposed to be ruled a spoiled ballot. Instead the resolution board counted it in Lane’s favor, Jones said.

Jones said in a phone interview that Cruthird was not supposed to be on that resolution board since he is member of the executive committee. Conversely, Blappert, who was also on the resolution board, should not have been a member either. Jones said a recent law, which neither the clerks’ offices nor the committee members knew about, would have deemed their participation on the resolution board a conflict of interest and made their decision to count the spoiled ballot in Lane’s favor as invalid.

After hearing the evidence and meeting in executive session, the executive committee decided by a vote of 3 to 1, with Cruthird recusing himself as per Turnage’s request due to his role on the resolution board, to hold a new primary election on June 2. Lane and Turnage will be on the ballot and only voters who voted in the primary election on May 5, as a Republican, or voters who did not vote at all, in either the primary or in the Democratic mayoral runoff, can vote in the new primary, Daniel said.

Turnage said she believes the proceedings at Monday’s hearing were fair. The reason she filed the contest was to protect the interests of the voters she represents in precinct 3, she said. Even if the vote had not been as close as it was, she still would have contested the election based on the evidence.

With the results of the hearing she encourages everyone to get out and vote. She said this hearing is proof that every vote counts.

Executive Committee Chairperson Cecil Watkins said the purpose for the hearing was to ensure that a fair and just election was held. A statement Watkins read aloud at the hearing stated that “irregularities existed in the poll books for district 3 that clearly demonstrate that a certain number of voters who presented themselves for the purpose of voting on the councilman’s election for district 3 were denied the right to vote in the district in which they reside…”

Lane said he supports the executive committee’s decision to hold a new primary election.