Police called to Auditorium as poll-place dispute flares

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 5, 2001

Independent mayoral candidate Laurence Leyens, with his back to the camera, talks with Vicksburg Police Lt. Fred Hall Hudson Tuesday morning at City Auditorium as Leyens poll watcher Jeppie Barbour, far left, and election commission member Grady Edwards look on. (The Vicksburg Post/C. TODD SHERMAN)

[06/05/01] A poll watcher for mayoral candidate Laurence Leyens left the Auditorium precinct Tuesday morning after talking with Police Chief Mitchell Dent. Otherwise, turnout was mixed as voters cast ballots to select city officials for the next four years.

Precinct manager Carla Jones said that Jeppie Barbour, employed by Leyens to monitor IDs of people casting ballots, was making poll workers nervous by standing too close and, at one point, he had violated the 30-foot distance watchers must maintain from voters casting ballots.

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“He’s all over the poll workers,” Jones said. “They can’t even breathe.”

After talking with Dent, Barbour left. Their conversation could not be heard.

Early turnout at the 11 city precincts say three of the four candidates for mayor casting ballots before 8. The Democratic nominee and incumbent Mayor Robert Walker, 57, heavily favored at the Auditorium precinct, had not been seen voting.

The Vicksburg Election Commission and a representative from the U.S. Justice Department were called to the Auditorium around 8 after Walker poll watcher Dennis Taylor complained Barbour was interfering with voting.

After several discussions among Taylor, Barbour and election officials regarding the law governing poll watchers, uniformed police were called.

“You’ve got four poll watchers up there following the law and one that is not,” Taylor said.

Within an hour after uniformed police officers left the auditorium, Dent arrived and talked with Barbour. Barbour then left the polling place on his own.

Separately, Walker poll watchers Taylor and John Ferguson were asked by election officials to leave the Auditorium, and both did so on their own. They had been accused of not having proper credentials.

Poll watchers for the candidates had been asked by the precinct manager to sit in the first row of seats at the auditorium behind where workers were taking names of voters and giving out ballots. Barbour said that was too far away from the tables to be in a position to observe.

“They’re wanting me to stand 6 feet behind the clerks and that is a point where I cannot hear the voters or see the books,” Barbour said.

Leyens, 37, said at the Auditorium that Barbour had been aggressive but that poll workers had been closing books and preventing poll watchers from seeing the names of voters. He also said Taylor did not have the proper credentials to be at the auditorium.

“This particular precinct had hundreds of votes cast in the primary election by people from the county,” Leyens said. “All I want is a fair race and it is obviously not happening.”

Taylor and John Ferguson, another poll worker for Walker, were asked to leave the polling area by election officials.

Campaign workers, passing out literature and such, are not allowed in polling places. Watchers, however, who appear neutral, are allowed to monitor the process. Although election laws are not specific about how close poll watchers can stand to poll workers, Vicksburg election officials had instructed precinct managers to keep the candidates’ representatives at least 6 feet behind tables. Election Commission Chairman Lurline Green said that would be close enough for poll watchers to hear and observe.

At the Vicksburg Junior High School precinct, a lack of space presented another problem for election officials and poll watchers. The area where polling takes place at the school is about 10 feet wide, and poll watchers were asked to stay in the back of the room.

“My poll watchers aren’t where they can see and hear what is going on,” Leyens said.

Election commissioner Gail Walker said that in the limited space at the school it would be difficult to comply with the 6-foot rule and allowed poll watchers to stand within 3 feet behind poll workers.

Chris Herren of the U.S. Justice Department was on hand at both the Vicksburg Junior High School and City Auditorium precinct at different points, but would not make a comment. Attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department are in Vicksburg to monitor municipal elections, according to a news release.

Polls will be open until 7 p.m. Results will be available on cable channel 23 or online.

Early turnout Tuesday morning gave little indication of how many voters will go to the polls. While some precincts reported high turnout during the first hour of voting, others were described as slow.

At the No. 7 Fire Station a brief snafu nearly caused the precinct to be late opening because of a voting machine not working. The machine was replaced by 7:01, and the poll was opened with 11 people waiting to cast ballots.

Voting machine problems were also reported at the fire station during the flag vote in April.

At Kings Community Center, 37 people had voted by 8 a.m. Precinct manager Ledora Marley said the turnout was good for Kings.

“At a precinct this size, that’s steady,” Marley said. “We’re looking forward to a good day of voting.”

At the Cedar Grove precinct, manager O.A. Williams said turnout was lower than usual, especially for a mayoral election. Forty-seven voters had cast ballots at the precinct, which is housed in the Vicksburg Housing Authority’s administrative building.

“They all campaigned well, so it really surprises me that (turnout) is this low,” Williams said.

At the American Legion precinct where about 15 people waited in line before polls opened, 115 ballots were cast during the first hour of voting while 54 ballots were cast at the St. Aloysius.

“It’s better that May 1 (when primaries were held),” said precinct manager Sophie Smith at St. Aloysius. “We have our biggest rush when people get off from work.”

There was line of about 20 people at the back door of the Carpenters Union Hall precinct before polls opened. By 7:15 a.m., 38 people had voted.