Wednesday started with the promise of declaring a winner in Hattiesburg’s special mayoral election.
It soon turned into a comedy of errors, however, as the election commission ran into roadblock after roadblock in its attempt to count more than 1,000 absentee ballots.
“The nightmare continues,” said a beleaguered commission chairman Joe Kinnan at one point — after three consecutive precinct boxes had to be immediately resealed because of failures to follow absentee ballot procedures.
The pervasive problem prevented the commission from coming to an absentee ballot count that would have proved key in deciding the tight mayoral race.
At Tuesday’s end, independent challenger Dave Ware held a slim 32-vote lead over incumbent Democrat Johnny DuPree based on electronic votes from 14 precincts.
Kinnan explained that poll managers at five separate precincts did not follow their absentee ballot checklist of marking and separating ballots into accepted and rejected envelopes.
After consulting with the attorney general’s office about what to do concerning these votes, Kinnan said he was told to bring the responsible poll managers to City Hall to approve the ballots.
“We want to do everything we can to preserve the innocent voter,” Kinnan said. “It’s going to be up to these poll workers who failed their duty basically to come back to look into those very important votes.”
As for the other nine precincts, there were scattered examples of unmarked ballots there as well. However, the commissioners were able to submit 647 absentee votes for a machine count, including 219 from the Rowan Precinct — a DuPree stronghold.
Those votes will be calculated with the remaining precinct votes once they are approved. The five precincts needing to be approved today are East Sixth Street, Wesley Manor, the Train Depot, North Heights and Dixie Pine.
The election commissioners opened the precincts’ boxes in the presence of observers for both Ware and DuPree.
“Having these delays causes people to lack confidence in the process,” said Malcolm Jones, a Ware observer and attorney. “That’s unfortunate.”
But Jones also said he believed that Hattiesburg did a better job conducting the special election than the June 4 general election, which Ware challenged in a high-profile trial in July.
The controversy surrounding that election forced City Clerk Eddie Myers to resign and brought about the appointment of all new election commissioners.
“All in all, though, I thought they did a much better job in this election than in the last election,” Jones added. “The poll workers tried hard to follow procedures and be fair and impartial.”
Once the absentee ballots are tallied, commissioners will next tabulate an estimated 400 affidavit votes. The painstaking process of counting 115 affidavits in June took three days.
Ware election consultant Pete Perry said he hoped the election commission would shorten the time by bypassing examining the poll books and go straight to using the comprehensive Statewide Election Management System to track down voters.
“We’re going to recommend speeding up the process,” he said.
SOURCE: CLARION LEDGER,