Chaotic scenes unfolded in and around a crowded majority-Black Madison County voting precinct this morning as hundreds of voters’ vehicles filled up two parking lots and began spilling into a third down the road.
Voters waited two hours to cast a ballot as the line stretched from The Mark Apartments precinct in southeast Ridgeland, a historic white-flight suburb outside Jackson, and wrapped around a shopping center down the road.
“We’re shuttling people to and from a bank down the road. … The line is moving so slowly,” said Conner Smith, a volunteer for Madison County District 1 election commissioner candidate Carol Mann, a Democrat.
After official voter parking spaces at The Mark Apartments quickly filled up, voters maxed out parking capacity at a nearby shopping center. Smith said Trustmark Bank on Lake Harbour Drive, about half a mile from the precinct, then gave volunteers permission to direct voters to park at their location so they can shuttle them back to the precinct.
‘An Extremely Cramped Polling Place’
The Mississippi Free Press broke the news last week that Madison County officials quietly changed the boundaries between the majority-white Ridgeland Recreation Center precinct and the majority-Black Mark Apartments precinct in Ridgeland over the summer.
That decision effectively shuffled more than 2,000 mostly Black and Hispanic voters out of the Ridgeland precinct and into The Mark Apartments precinct. While that cut the number of voters served at the Ridgeland Recreation precinct, it almost tripled the number served at the already-cramped Mark Apartments, from about 1,100 voters in May to more than 3,000 now.
Mann, the commissioner candidate, alerted the Mississippi Free Press to the change last week, saying she feared that the voters were being moved from a polling location “with adequate polling stations and adequate parking to an extremely cramped polling place” and that the change would cause “chaos and confusion.”
Since officials moved voters, the now overwhelmingly white Ridgeland Recreation Center precinct serves just more than 3,000 voters, too, but that precinct’s location on Old Trace Park, near the Ross Barnett Reservoir, includes hundreds of parking spaces; the Mark Apartments precinct could only offer voters 25 parking spaces.
The Ridgeland Recreation Center building is also far roomier, allowing more space for ample voting stations and to meet social-distancing requirements amid the COVID-19 pandemic; voters at the Mark Apartments had to cast their ballots in a small clubhouse kitchen area with polling stations lined up back-to-back.
This morning, voters said that while lines at the Ridgeland Recreation Center lasted about 30 to 40 minutes, many voters at The Mark Apartments waited two hours or longer despite arriving early.
During a press conference yesterday, Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson said he did not expect long waits.
“You’re gonna see some short lines and some quick service, so I look forward to having not a lot of big lines tomorrow in Mississippi,” Watson said.
A Tale of Two Precincts
Some voters arrived after first waiting in line at their old precinct location only to find out that it had changed.
“I got halfway through the line and got told the (precinct) for my road had changed, so now I have to go to a different place and do a line all over again. So much for going early to cut time,” Nate Schumann, who is white, said this morning. He noted that he and Hannah Shaw arrived at the Ridgeland Recreation Center after it opened at 7 a.m. and waited in line for about 20 minutes before learning they were at the wrong place.
At the secretary of state’s press conference yesterday, Watson said that voters who arrive at the wrong precinct should go to the correct one, rather than casting an affidavit ballot; it will not count, he said.
Schumann said a clerk in the Madison County circuit clerk’s office had told him and Shaw that they would vote at the Ridgeland Recreation Center after the two registered to vote in September—after the precinct change had already taken place. He said he did not notice any signage outside the Recreation Center to alert voters that their precinct may have moved.
Watson told all local election officials earlier this year that signage is required at old precinct locations when voters’ precincts have moved.
Madison County Election Commission Attorney Spence Flatgard told the Madison County Board of Supervisors yesterday that Commissioner Helen Carney had placed signs outside the Recreation Center. Voters have not reported seeing those signs to the Mississippi Free Press, though, but some have sent this publication photos of signs that independent voting-rights groups erected over the weekend.
After learning they were at the wrong location, Schumann and Shaw then traveled three miles to The Mark Apartments, where they waited in line for about two hours. Parking and crowding issues aside, he said he noticed big differences between the heavily white precinct and the majority-Black one immediately.
“The Recreation Center had volunteers scattered throughout the parking lot to enforce social distancing and to explain how the voting process works. They did so repeatedly while we were there to inform the new people in line. … As far as I can tell (at The Mark Apartments), no one has been announcing how the process works or anything like that. Everyone is masked, but social distancing isn’t 6 feet,” he said.
Schumann sent the Mississippi Free Press photos showing voters crowded around a kitchen island inside The Mark Apartments club house, filling out paper ballots behind white dividers. The polling stations were lined up back-to-back, making 6 feet of social distancing impossible. Schumann said he saw nine polling stations—more than the five Madison County officials said they expected last week.
After voters filled out their paper ballots, though, they then had to go to a scanner, scan the ballot in and drop off their pens. But Schumann said he only saw three scanners in the precinct.
Update: voters wait in a line that stretches around the block at the Madison County Mark Apartments precinct that was recently rezoned to double the amount of voters. Video taken at 9:00 a.m with reported wait times ~ 1 hour. @MSFreePress pic.twitter.com/gkWgCrO00z
— yucassippi (@a_m_jordan) November 3, 2020
Smith, the Mann campaign volunteer, told the Mississippi Free Press that a voter told him one of the scanning machines went down this morning. He said he took time mid-morning to go to his own precinct in District 1, New Life Baptist, to cast a ballot. The wait in that heavily white precinct only lasted about 25 minutes, he said. Smith is white.
After voting, Schumann said he realized that the voter-registration card he had received in the mail did list The Mark Apartments as his voting address, but he had not thought to check it because the clerk told him and Shaw when they registered that they would vote at the Recreation Center.
‘This Is Being Done to Discourage Minorities From Voting’
Last week, several voters who had long voted at the Ridgeland Recreation Center told the Mississippi Free Press that they did not receive letters notifying them of the precinct change. One voter, Steve Cunningham, said last week that he did receive a letter and said it also came with an updated voter-identification card. Still, the African American voter said he believed the change was an attempt to suppress non-white votes.
“I absolutely, 100% think it’s racially motivated,” he said.
The part of Ridgeland where local officials redrew the boundaries for The Mark precinct has a sordid past when it comes to racism.
The Mississippi Free Press examined population and demographic data for the area from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2018 5-year estimates on CensusReporter.org.
The data show that Madison election officials moved Block Groups 1, 2, 4 and 5 of Census Tract 301.08 from the Ridgeland Recreation Center precinct to The Mark Apartments precinct; the U.S. Census Bureau estimates 4,709 people reside within these block groups, including many who are not registered voters or not eligible to vote. Only 21% of them are white. The area, which is 0.9 square miles, includes 42% of the entire non-white population of the 19.8 square mile District 1.
“My view is that this is being done to discourage minorities from voting,” candidate Carol Mann told the Mississippi Free Press last week. “These streets and these apartment complexes, and I can tell you having gone through all of them and knocking on doors in this area, are vastly majority African American.”
Leasing Agent Worried About Precinct’s ‘Tight Space’
Madison County election officials did not speak to the Mississippi Free Press for the original Oct. 29 story. District 1 Election Commissioner Helen Carney, Mann’s opponent, directed this publication to speak instead to Madison County Election Commission Board Attorney, Spence Flatgard, who did not respond to a request for comment.
After this publication first reported on the precinct change, though, Flatgard told WJTV news that Madison County election officials had been working with management at The Mark Apartments to ensure there would be enough parking spaces and enough room inside the clubhouse for voters to cast ballots.
But documentary photographer Allie Jordan traveled to both voting precincts and produced a photo essay, which the Mississippi Free Press published, and spoke with The Mark’s property manager Sidtaya Jones on Friday.
Jones told Jordan that Commissioner Carney had come by “one time months before and one time” in the past week.
“I asked Jones if Carney had mentioned plans to expand parking. She said Carney did not mention a strategy to accommodate the recently rezoned 2,000-plus voters into the already cramped precinct,” Jordan wrote.
In the Nov. 1 essay, Jordan also wrote that the Mark’s leasing agent, Yannet Bouder, “expressed concern about the high number of voters expected to cramp into such a tight space.”
Flatgard Cited Department of Justice Prodding
On Monday morning, the Madison County Board of Supervisors held a special meeting to discuss the precinct changes. Normally, county supervisors are in charge of deciding precinct locations and boundaries. At the meeting, which Madison County streamed live, Flatgard answered supervisors’ questions, saying he and Circuit Clerk Anita Wray decided to make the changes.
Flatgard said that, earlier this year sometime, officials at the U.S. Department of Justice “realized that you could go to the Secretary of State website and type in an address” and see that some people who should be voting at The Mark Apartments, according to poll books, are instead voting at the Recreation Center. The Mississippi Free Press has not been able to independently verify these claims.
“So they contacted us, and we met, and it was too close to the March primary to really get the notice out,” Flatgard said about the Justice Department. “So we said, ‘We don’t want to do that yet. We agree that people need to vote where they live.’ And so they said, OK, do try to do it.’”
The Mississippi Free Press has not been able to verify the details of the meeting Flatgard described.
But the Department of Justice has not had oversight of precinct changes in Mississippi and other states with a history of racial discrimination since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a core part of the Voting Rights Act in a 2013 ruling. In that ruling, a 5-4 majority of the nation’s high court claimed checks on southern states’ attempts to suppress Black voters were outdated and no longer necessary.
Here is a video sent to me by @SmithforWard4 of the Mark Apartment voting location in Ridgeland. Time stamp on the video was from 6:38 AM this morning. Some quick plotting on a mapping tool shows lines ~ 1/8th of a mile long. @a_m_jordan @ashtonpittman pic.twitter.com/w7Hj34Y6UH
— John McGee (@11_mcgee) November 3, 2020
Flatgard told the Madison County Board of Supervisors on Monday that the issue with the two precincts goes back to redistricting in 2011.
“At about the same time, there was a polling location, Sunchase Apartments, kind of off Old Canton (Road), that didn’t want to be a polling location anymore. And we didn’t want them to be, really—they weren’t that great for handicapped voters,” Flatgard said. “So that went away, and that precinct really collapsed, and those voters either went to the Ridgeland Recreation Center or the Mark Apartments.”
The Mississippi Free Press has not been able to verify that the Sunchase Apartments precinct, then officially known as the Ridgeland 3 Precinct, was used during the period Flatgard refers to, however. Though Ridgeland Precinct 3 is listed in county election reports from 2008 to 2012, no votes are attributed to that precinct in any of those years, and the spaces for vote totals are instead filled with an “x” in each blank.
The most recent election report showing votes as having been cast in that precinct is from the 2007 statewide election, when both Ridgeland Precinct 3 and the Ridgeland Recreation Center are located under the heading “Non-Separated Precincts.” It is not uncommon for multiple precincts to use a single physical polling location.
Flatgard’s claim that Madison no longer wanted to use Sunchase Apartments as a voting precinct because they “weren’t that great for handicapped voters” is also questionable; The Mark Apartments complex only has three accessible parking spots for 3,000 voters among the 25 offered.
Sunchase Apartments is one of several located in the part of southeast Ridgeland where the recent precinct changes happened that was named in a 2016 lawsuit against the city. Several residents who lived in apartment complexes in the area, including Sunchase filed a complaint against the City, alleging racially discriminatory Fair Housing Act violations.
“The City of Ridgeland, Mississippi, has unlawfully attempted to diminish its minority population by eliminating, through rezoning, at least five apartment complexes that are occupied by predominantly African-American or Latino residents,” the 2016 complaint began, claiming that officials believed that “limiting affordable housing options was the best way to curb the influx of what was referred to as ‘Jackson’s rot.’”
‘The Negative Stories Have Helped’
At the Madison County Board of Supervisors meeting on Monday morning, Flatgard admitted that “it’s possible someone didn’t get a notice” about the precinct change “if the information in the system isn’t right” and said “some people may not remember they got the notice.” Circuit Clerk Wray, who was also at the meeting, said her office had sent notices about the change out to more than 2,500 voters.
Several Black voters whom the Mississippi Free Press and Mann spoke to said they have voted at the Ridgeland Recreation for years and that they were certain they did not receive a notice.
Flatgard said he and his team had been working with the Department of Justice to alert voters to the changes. “We’re working hand-in-glove with them to notify voters, and so doing that through the website and social media,” he said.
There is scant public evidence of such a collaboration or that Madison officials made efforts to notify the broader public about the changes before the Mississippi Free Press report on Oct. 29. Before that, there had been no public announcement on social media, broadcast television or in local newspapers; local TV stations picked up the story after this publication first reported it.
Mann, the commissioner candidate, told the Mississippi Free Press last week that she only found out about the change while canvassing and realizing that many voters did not realize they had been moved to a different precinct.
“We were calling to make sure people were registered to vote starting in September, and then I’d ask them where they went to vote, and they’d tell me the Recreation Center, but the secretary of state’s voter locator would say Mark Apartments. And I was scratching my head actually for a long while on this, and I thought the secretary of state voter locator must be wrong until one lady showed me a letter she had received,” Mann said on Oct. 28.
Mann told the Mississippi Free Press this afternoon that the line at the Marks Apartments had diminished since the morning rush, but she was worried that long lines and hours-long waits would return later in the afternoon as people began getting off work.
At the supervisors hearing yesterday, Flatgard said he did not mind the press coverage.
“Frankly the negative stories have helped because I think it’s gotten the word out,” he said. “I’d rather do that negative story before the election than after. I mean, I think being here helps. So everything we can do to notify voters, we’re trying to do. And then some, you know.”
Polls are open in Mississippi today until 7 p.m. Mississippi voters must arrive at their polling places by that time with a valid form of photo ID to cast a ballot. Anyone in line by 7 p.m. who remains in line will be able to cast a ballot.
Curbside voting is available for Mississippians who are disabled, have COVID-19 or COVID-19-like symptoms, or have been exposed to COVID-19. Polling locations should have a phone number posted for voters to call once they arrive; poll workers will then come to the car to assist voters. The secretary of state advises Mississippi voters to call their county circuit clerk ahead of time to verify if they plan to vote curbside.
Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs has advised voters to wear masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic, though election officials are only requiring them for poll workers. More information on voting is available at sos.ms.gov/vote.
This story is part of the MFP’s Mississippi Trusted Elections Project, focusing on access to the polls and voting access in Mississippi. Visit the site to view several infographics and continually updated maps of voting precincts, absentee vote totals and precinct changes across Mississippi, created by William Pittman. The American Press Institute provided funding for this work.