JACKSON, Miss.—One month after ballot shortages in Hinds County left people waiting for hours to cast a vote in Mississippi’s Nov. 7 statewide elections, organizers and lawyers say they are still seeking transparency from local and state election officials about what happened on Election Day.
“Hinds County voters still have questions,” NAACP Legal Defense Fund Voting Special Counsel Amir Badat said at a press conference on Thursday, Dec. 7. “The events that happened on Election Day are unacceptable.”
The Mississippi Democratic Party filed an emergency petition with the Hinds County Chancery Court to extend the voting hours. Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas approved the order allowing precincts to stay open until 8 p.m. to give voters additional time to vote.
Voters in at least nine precincts in Hinds County reported ballot shortages on Election Day. Some said their polling places ran out of ballots as early as 8:30 a.m., while others reported waiting as long as two hours in line in order to cast a ballot.
Hinds County District 5 Election Commissioner Shirley Varnado initially blamed an “unexpectedly large turnout as the problem,” WLBT reported on Nov. 7; once officials had counted all ballots, however, the results showed that fewer people voted for governor in this year’s statewide elections than in 2019 Later on Nov. 9, WJTV reported that the Hinds County Election Commission attributed the shortages to officials using the wrong forms for ballot orders and that “the commission said they take full responsibility for what occurred during the general election.”
“In order for us to really understand what happened, we need some information from the election commissioners and circuit clerk about why the ballot shortages happened. What were the issues with printing? What caused the confusion?” Badat told the Mississippi Free Press. He said the Legal Defense Fund is also seeking information from Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson about the type of training and resources that were provided to local officials in preparation for Election Day.
Under Mississippi law, local election officials are in charge of securing enough ballots for voters ahead of an election. The Mississippi Secretary of State’s office is charged with training local election officials, providing guidance and oversight, and certifying election results, but does not directly manage elections at the precinct or county levels.
When asked about the next steps, Badat said legal action is always a possibility but that right now, organizers and legal advocates are hoping election commissioners and officials with the Hinds County Circuit Clerk’s office are open to answering their questions. “That’s how we would prefer to move forward in a cooperative and collaborative way, but all options are on the table if we’re not able to get what we feel voters need. I can’t say one way or another at this point (if we’ll take legal action),” he explained.
Badat said he’s looking forward to the upcoming Hinds County Election Commission meeting at 10 a.m. on Dec. 12, 2023, at 701 Commerce St. in Jackson, and he encouraged Hinds County residents to attend so that they can voice their experiences with voting. He said advocates will continue to push local and state officials for answers.
‘Are We Going to Get Arrested?’
Brittany Denson is a volunteer with the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign and served as a nonpartisan poll monitor liaison on Nov. 7. She told the Mississippi Free Press that on Election Day she and other polling site watchers reported a variety of incidents they saw that may cause accessibility issues for voters, including insufficient parking space and a lack of wheelchair-accessible ramps for residents needing such accommodations.
“Our main job was to help voters be comfortable, first and foremost,” she said. Denson said two poll monitors called her on Election Day saying that commissioners “ran them off” from two separate polling sites in Rankin County. She said she was not comfortable sharing the names of the polling monitors who made the allegations.
“One of them called me and the other was texting her asking, ‘Are we supposed to continue to do this? Are we going to get arrested?” Denson said. “It was really odd to experience.” Denson said that on Election Day, she used an NAACP Legal Defense Fund app to report incidents that they witnessed at polling sites but that she no longer has access to the photos.
“Any incident that came through, they had to write a report. There was probably a room of 30 to 40 people (with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund) writing reports as they came in,” she said.
Congressional leaders in Washington, D.C., also have their eyes on the Nov. 7 ballot shortage debacle. U.S. House Committee on House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil wrote a letter to the Hinds County election commissioners on Dec. 5 pressing them for information on actions they are taking to avoid similar problems in future elections and to “restore voter confidence.”
“As you may know, the Committee is especially concerned with resolving any issues that may lead to the disenfranchisement of voters due to government-created ballot shortages,” Steil wrote.
“Under Mississippi law, the chair of each county election commission is given the duty and responsibility to print all ballots necessary for the election. Further, the chair is charged with ascertaining from the registrar at least 10 days before the election the number of voters registered in each precinct,” he continued. “These serious issues of ballot shortages and incorrect ballot distribution appear to have occurred in spite of these strong requirements in Mississippi law, and I am concerned that these recent events may repeat themselves in the upcoming federal election.”
Steil’s letter asked that election commissioners and/or Watson respond to the letter by Dec. 19, 2023.