Write-in votes may – or may not – count in elections|[6/21/06]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Mississippi voters may still write in the names of people not listed on their ballots with the touch-screen technology now in use – but whether the vote is counted depends on longstanding state law.

Secretary of State Eric Clark was in Vicksburg Tuesday, speaking at the Vicksburg Kiwanis Club, and largely hailing Mississippi’s first use of new voting machines as a success.

The Diebold machines, purchased with federal, state and local funds, debuted in the June 6 Democratic Primary and are to be rolled out again for a runoff next week.

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Unofficial returns showed the write-in option was used by 30 people in Warren County, nearly 1 percent of the 4,130 votes cast in the U.S. Senate primary.

Although the machines can accept and tally write-ins, state law limits that option, Clark said.

&#8220It’s a restrictive write-in law,” Clark said. Write-in votes may be counted only as substitutes for a candidate whose name has been printed on ballots but has died, resigned, withdrawn or been disqualified before the election is held.

A grassroots rally for a candidate who didn’t file qualifying papers is simply not allowed in Mississippi otherwise.

The last time the write-in law applied to an election at the state level may have been when the only candidate on the ballot for state representative for five Delta counties died very near a 2003 election, Secretary of State’s Office spokesman David Blount said.

In such a case, each political party is allowed to name a nominee for the election. The Democratic Party nominated another candidate and she won with 99.1 percent of the vote.

Write-in candidates are now &#8220typed in,” using a touch-screen keyboard on the display screen of the new devices.

Each race on each ballot is tallied independently. If a voter writes in a candidate for one race and that vote is not counted, votes in other races will be. The same rule applies to ballots in which voters opt not to vote in some contests. Their choices in others will be valid.

Clark said he’s been focused for about the past year and a half on the federal Help America Vote Act, which provided the mandate and about 95 percent of the funding for many upgrades state officials knew were needed. HAVA was prompted by problems with ballot-counting in the 2000 presidential election.

A few Mississippi counties already had touch-screen machines. Warren County had been using paper ballots and an optical scanner, which complied with HAVA, but would have needed additional technology at each polling place to allow the paper ballots to be completed by voters with impaired vision or other limitations. All area counties opted in to the state purchase.

Another key reform is the integration statewide of counties’ voter rolls, Clark said. The project is expected to cost about $10 million and to result in much cleaner rolls to reduce the opportunities for election fraud, Clark added.

Among the types of people whose names the Secretary of State’s office is working to help county officials know or confirm are on their voter rolls so they can remove them are people who have died, people who are registered to vote in multiple counties and people who are in jail for crimes that make them ineligible to vote. Clark said his office is getting information on people’s status in those respects from the state health department and the federal Social Security Administration, the U.S. Postal Service and the state administrative office of courts.

&#8220Having clean election rolls is the most important thing we can do to fight election fraud,” Clark said, adding that he believes most election fraud probably occurs using absentee ballots.

Another new feature the Secretary of State’s Office hopes to have in place soon is the availability by Internet of accurate, up-to-the-minute election returns on election nights, Clark added.

Clark requested and received from the Legislature a $6 million bond issue to help counties that could not afford enough new voting machines buy more of them. That issue is to be repaid through funds collected from a filing fee for legal documents in circuit clerks’ offices that was to be phased out next year, Clark said. Once that debt has been repaid the fee is to continue to be collected as &#8220a continuing source of revenue to stay in compliance” with HAVA, Clark said.

&#8220Mississippi is ahead of the curve nationally in implementing HAVA,” Clark said. &#8220We’ve gotten wonderful cooperation from county officials. I’m very happy with how far we’ve come.”

In June 6 voting, only about 14 percent of voters listed as eligible cast ballots. In addition to the Senate contest, a challenge in the 2nd Congressional District to incumbent U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson was turned back. No write-in votes were listed in unofficial results for that race.