Laws to prevent election snafus on way to passage, Clark says

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 31, 2002

[05/31/02] Three Mississippi laws aimed at preventing problems like Florida’s during and after the 2000 presidential election are on their way to final approval, Mississippi Secretary of State Eric Clark said here Thursday.

The laws provide for the creation of a centralized voter-roll-keeping system, require counties to report all votes not counted and set statewide standards for examining ballots rejected by automatic vote-counting devices.

All three were recommended by the Clark-appointed Select Task Force on Election Procedures and Technology a year after the Florida breakdown and were passed in this year’s legislative session. Clark told members of the Vicksburg Rotary Club he expects their required approved by the U.S. Justice Department to be forthcoming.

Primary elections for the state’s 2nd Congressional District are scheduled for Tuesday. The candidates for the Democratic Party nomination are George E. Irvin Sr., 53, of Jackson and Bennie Thompson, 55, of Bolton. The Republican Party primary candidates are Clinton B. LeSueur, 33, of Greenville, and Charlotte Reeves, 55, of Jackson.

“We have a serious problem with inflated voter rolls,” Clark said. About 140,000 people who have moved away, died or are in jail for voting-right-forfeiting crimes remain registered to vote in the 82 separate single-county voter-roll computer systems, he said.

“We’re trying to go through and compile a statewide list and pick out the duplicates,” Clark said, adding that such a task can involve cross-checking records at the post office, the state health department, the Social Security Administration and the state Administrative Office of Courts.

“It’s a hit-and-miss deal,” he said. “We need a network that links every Circuit Clerk’s Office, but we don’t have the money to do it at the county or state level.”

Clark said funded Congressional mandates for such systems are expected, however, at which time “Mississippi will be at the front of the line with a plan in place ready to go.”

The use of such a system to maintain more accurate voter rolls would decrease both the risk of election fraud and the difficulty of summoning jurors from voter rolls, Clark said.

In explaining the law requiring county reports on “thrown-out” votes, Clark said some Mississippi counties throw out up to five times the national target of two percent of votes. Often this happens due to confusingly designed ballots on which many voters “vote” twice, he said.

“The long-term goal is moving toward uniform voting machines,” Clark said, adding that the federal government would also likely provide funding for such machines. “We’ll be ready,” he said.

And setting and using statewide standards for counting votes rejected by automatic counting devices would avoid what was “a big part of the problem in Florida,” Clark said.

The best-known role of the Mississippi Secretary of State may be as the state’s chief elections officer, but the office is really “a hodgepodge of duties that have nothing to do with each other,” Clark said.

Since 1980 the office has administered about 1.3 million acres of public lands, including the state’s nearly 750,000 acres of 16th Section lands, which were set aside at statehood to generate income for public schools. Those lands currently generate for individual school districts rental income of about $50 million annually, Clark said.

The Secretary of State is also responsible for miscellaneous business services and publications, including the maintenance of business-formation records and Uniform Commercial Code filings and the publication of the state’s official and statistical register.

One of the services Clark’s office provides is a report on charitable organizations, which makes public information on charities’ fund raising and administrative expenses. That service is one of many the office provides through its web site, www.sos.state.ms.us.

“We have a user-friendly attitude,” Clark said. “We are literally there to serve folks who need our help.”