As the country moves toward the presidential election in November, many questions remain regarding the accuracy of the nation’s election process. Here in Mississippi, some counties remain on old punch card-type ballots, and others are using the outdated lever machines. There are also continuing concerns about accurate voter registration records.
While it won’t happen soon enough to affect this election, Mississippi Secretary of State Eric Clark says a massive effort is underway to clean up the voter rolls to decrease election fraud.
“We have reports of people being registered to vote in three counties,” Clark said. “There are people on the rolls who are in jail for crimes that have resulted in the loss of the right to vote. These are people on the rolls who need to be removed.”
It is the responsibility of the five election commissioners in each county to keep the voter registration rolls updated. But Clark says some are more aggressive than others doing that job. And often the election commissioners simply don’t have the information they need to take people off the voter rolls.
“There is no question in my mind that inflated, out-of-date voter rolls are the biggest cause of election fraud,” Clark said. “Most voter fraud, I’m certain, occurs in absentee ballots. It is much easier to do voter fraud if you have inflated voter rolls that allow people to vote in the names of people who are not alive, who have moved away, or who are in jail.”
As part of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) signed into law by the U.S. Congress two years ago, Mississippi expects to receive—if the law if fully funded — approximately $35 million for a statewide computer voter registration system that will be standardized, and allow the 82 county circuit clerks in the state to share information to clean up the voter rolls.
“HAVA is a massive election reform project, and I’m very excited about it,” Clark said. “The idea is if someone moves from Harrison to Forrest County, that information is electronically submitted to Harrison County so that person would be removed from rolls. The system would also check state health department and national Social Security records to see who has died, and remove them from the rolls. There would also be administrative office reports to find out who is in jail for disenfranchising crimes, to give the election commission the information they need to clean up voter rolls.”
Clark said he has been concerned about improving the voter registration system since he came into office in 1996. But the state has not had the money needed.
“So, the HAVA bill in Congress is a tremendous boon to Mississippi to let us do reforms we have needed for a long time,” Clark said. “I was delighted the Congress passed it.
All of our congressional delegation from Mississippi voted for it. We’re working hard to make sure the money is spent well.
“We’re going to finally be able to clean up our voter rolls and keep them accurate. We will build a network that allows each county to ‘talk’ electronically with other counties and our office using a single system. Keeping accurate voter rolls is the most important step to running fair and honest elections.”
Another big election issue involves concerns about hackers tampering with the results from computer voting machines.
“It is a big national issue about tampering with computer voting machines,” Clark said. “The so-called direct reporting electronic machines that have touch screens have been in use a few years now. They are used in Hinds and Rankin counties. A few states such as Georgia and Maryland have them statewide. There have been a lot of questions raised in the past year and a half about whether they could be tampered with by hackers.”
Clark said one reason he didn’t push as hard on voting machines for this election is he wants to let that national debate play out. The hope is there will be a consensus on how to deal with the issue that will evolve in the months ahead.
“The companies that make these machines are being pressured to come up with some verifiable paper trail,” Clark said. “I’m confident in next several months the companies across America that sell these machines will come up with a practical cure for that concern. Every state in this country is trying to come up with a solution for that problem. We want clearer signals before investing in these machines in Mississippi. I’m very much tuned in to the issue of having some kind of paper trail to verify the results that the computer machines indicate. So we’re watching that very closely.”
Two other major pieces of HAVA that won’t cost as much money include making it easier for disabled citizens and military personnel and their families to vote. HAVA requires that by January 1, 2006, every voter precinct in America must have at least one machine to allow the disabled to vote privately. The precinct must be handicapped assessable as well. The law also requires improvements making it easier for military and their families stationed overseas to vote.
Another pre-election effort the Secretary of State’s office is promoting is the education of poll workers and polls watchers. During the last state election, the Secretary of State’s office received numerous complaints about poll watchers interfering in the election process.
“One of the things we are doing this year is trying to make it very clear exactly what rights poll watchers have,” Clark said. “Any candidate has the right to have poll watchers there, but they have no right to interfere with voters or poll workers. Someone doing so could be arrested and prosecuted.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.