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Counting on the Vote Counters
A front-row seat in Mississippi to how the central act of democracy is managed—and sometimes mismanaged.
“REJECT,” TED SAYS, writing the rejected absentee voter’s name on his form.1
“Hold on,” Carla says. “All of us are supposed to check each application and ballot. If we see a problem, we vote. Those are the rules.” Ted stares at Carla, his knee drumming against the table.
It’s the morning of November 7, 2023. Election Day. I’m here as an official observer for Brandon Presley, the Democratic candidate for Mississippi governor. My job is to observe the five members of the Harrison County Resolution Board here in the Emergency Management Conference Room at the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport, Mississippi. They’re processing in-person and mail-in absentee ballots and recording the names and addresses of rejected ballots.
The Resolution Board consists of two white women, two white men, and Carla, a black woman. Appointed by the Harrison County Election Commission, they are each paid about $200 per day.
“You’re right,” Ted concedes. They each examine the ballot. The voter signed on the wrong line. After a brief discussion, they vote. 3-2. “Accepted,” Ted says.
AS THE BOARD IS REVIEWING BALLOTS, the gubernatorial race could go either way. Incumbent Tate Reeves has maintained a lead of several points in the polls, but Presley seems to have momentum. Corruption, cronyism, and Medicaid expansion were the hot issues of the race. Reeves’s welfare scandal is the biggest in state history, and then there are his campaign donors who received appointments in pay-to-play deals. So far, Reeves has gotten away with everything. He fired the attorney bringing the corruption case, stalling accountability indefinitely.
Reeves’s campaign has focused on scaring white people by associating Presley with President Biden and black leaders. A Mississippi GOP mailer depicted “The Biden-Presley Agenda” as Stacey Abrams “indoctrinating” a room of mostly white kids with masks.
There is no “early voting” in Mississippi, only absentee voting with restrictions—the most complex absentee voting in the country, according to Sam, another board member, who proudly holds up the accepted ballot. “So, when it’s a good one, you know it’s a good one.”
In 2011, Republican legislators in Mississippi passed new voter laws, eliminating same-day registration and making photo ID at polling places mandatory. After voting-rights groups sued the state in federal court, voting laws changed, expanding access to curbside voting and setting a new process to let voters correct signature discrepancies on absentee ballots.
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When the Resolution Board finds signature discrepancies, they put the ballot in a pile in the middle of the table. These ballots get sent “upstairs,” where the election commissioner will decide whether or not to send a “cure” letter so that the voter has an opportunity to return to the circuit court and correct the vote.
SALLY CONTINUES READING the list of absentee voters’ names and addresses out loud, as required. She struggles with one name and laughs. “Oh, my goodness gracious. What was his mother thinking, naming him that?”
Ted stares at another signature on another ballot. “This is two different people,” he says.
Carla looks closer. “See those two letters?” she says. “They’re the same.”
They each lean in to examine the ballot. “You’d think they’d be more careful,” Sally says.
They take another vote. The ballot is rejected.
I text my supervisor, Nick: Can I challenge?
Nick texts back: On what grounds?
I want to say, on the grounds that this is nuts. These people aren’t handwriting experts, yet they’re deciding who gets to vote and who doesn’t.
But I can guess Nick’s response. This is the system we have to work with, so I write down the rejected voter’s name and address. This voter will receive a letter offering the chance to “cure” her vote, but will she return by November 17 to make her vote count? What would I do with a “cure” letter after election results were already announced? Probably ignore it.
I have voted in Illinois, Iowa, New York, and Indiana, but when my husband and I moved to Mississippi and voted, I walked away surprised by all the rules. I wanted to know why things are the way they are. So I got involved, training first as a poll worker, then as a poll watcher, and now as a Resolution Board observer.
A few years ago, I “graduated” from two different poll-worker training sessions in Mississippi, one run by a Democrat, the other run by a Republican. The Democrat focused on making sure every vote counted. “Voting is a right,” our trainer, Renick Taylor, 54, told our training group.
The Republican focused on looking for ways to question a vote. “Voting is a privilege,” District 3 Mississippi Election Commissioner Barbara Kimball, 83, said. “Not all votes count.” She also lamented that the whole country doesn’t run elections the way Mississippi does.
EVERY ABSENTEE BALLOT must have an absentee-ballot application paper-clipped to it. If they get separated, the vote might be rejected. I watch board members unfold each ballot and ballot application, confirm that it’s postmarked by November 6, check the corresponding application for each envelope, check for a circuit clerk’s seal and initials, ensure the application and the ballots are signed by the voter, compare the voter’s signature on the application and the ballot envelope, and ensure the ballot envelope is signed across the flap.
Over 3,000 people voted absentee this year in Harrison County. The resolution board is aiming to process 1,000 today.
“I wish we had more people to help,” Carla says, looking at the overstuffed ballot boxes on the floor.
Absentee voting numbers are higher this year. Throughout the state, there were 56,403 absentee ballots completed and returned to local circuit clerks’ offices, compared to a little over 48,000 absentee votes counted in the 2019 statewide election. Mailed absentee ballots will be counted as long as they are postmarked by election day and are returned through the mail to the local circuit clerk’s office by November 15.
“The only similarity is this swirl,” Ted says, showing the others another ballot.
“What a mess,” Sally says. “Bless her heart. Reject.”
“You look like you’re grading papers,” Carla says to Ted. “You’re looking for mistakes.” Ted laughs. “How about a little grace?” Carla asks. They vote 3-2. The ballot is rejected.
Sally stops reading the names to say she was at a wedding over the weekend, and when a Trump impersonator came, she went to the ladies room because she didn’t want any pictures next to him showing up on the internet. She says Resolution Board members are supposed to be nonpartisan, but it seems obvious where each member’s party affiliation lies.
Mississippi’s election process is partisan. That, too, is something I learned during my poll-training sessions. Both Renick and Kimball said that our state’s elections are run by the winning party, and right now, Secretary of State Michael Watson, a Republican, is responsible for Mississippi’s elections.
Why should one political party have any more influence over elections? That’s the way things are done in most states, but it strikes me as like having refs in a football game representing one of the two teams. It makes no sense.
Ted holds up a ballot with no signature. There is no cure for an unsigned ballot. They all agree to reject. “It pains me,” Carla says.
“What are you going to do with your information?” Sally asks me during a break at 10:00. She’s staring at my notes.
I tell her my plan to return the data to the Presley campaign. I add that Harrison County has an unusually high absentee-rejection rate of 7 percent. The average rejection rate for the country is less than 1 percent. Some states are as high as 5 percent. Mississippi as a whole was 2.3 percent in 2020.
“Maybe we’re more accurate,” Sally says. “Maybe people in the Delta and Jackson just aren’t careful.”
ABSENTEE BALLOTS HAVE CONCERNED ME since our son, living out of state for college, had trouble finding a notary in order to vote absentee in Mississippi. That year, I was a poll worker during a general election. After the last voter left, my fellow poll workers and I began packing up. A colleague found an envelope of absentee ballots, opened it, and began sorting through the ballots. Another colleague questioned him, saying the ballots should be opened at the courthouse.
“All these ballots have to be rejected,” the poll worker said. “The signatures don’t match.”
“These are ours,” I said, recognizing the ballots. The other poll workers and I had all voted absentee at the circuit court during our training session break. “The signatures match,” I said, lining them up.
Infuriated, the worker stormed out of the building. I don’t recall his name and I never saw him again. That night, I wrote a complaint, which went to the election commissioner, a Republican.
AT 10:15, THE RESOLUTION BOARD RECONVENES.
Sally begins reading, then stops. “Why can’t they have simple names like Bruce?”
Each absentee vote is not just processed. It’s judged. Each signature is up for debate. A pattern emerges. Most of the rejected ballots have missing signatures from either the notary or the voter.
Carla suggests they put up a sign in the clerk’s office saying Make your signatures match.
At 11:15, Carla leaves for a mammogram.
After they process 184 ballots, they break to eat pizza Ted brings in. They talk about fishing, pricey charter boats, and what shows they’re watching on Amazon Prime.
Later in the afternoon, when Carla returns, she suggests they bring in more help. The board agrees. She makes a call and gets two more people to join them the following day.
Ted finds a ballot where a voter printed her name on one line and signed on the other. She was supposed to sign two times. Does printing count as signing? They vote 2-3. The vote counts.
MY PHONE BUZZES with a text from a friend. They’ve run out of ballots in Hinds County, which is predominantly black and Democratic. Also, police around Jackson State University are stopping cars and checking IDs of anyone coming into the city, which also happened on Election Day in 2018. Later, I read that the Mississippi Center for Justice and Mississippi Votes filed a lawsuit to extend polling hours to 8:00 p.m. at four locations because of inadequate ballot access and long lines.
The year I served as a poll watcher, I drove around Harrison County on election day checking polls, many of them inside churches decorated with crosses, statues, and cut-out figures of Pope Francis. One polling facility in a church had been moved at the last minute because the church had been turned into a haunted house, complete with a real crashed car, recorded sounds of dogs barking, and signs reading Beware of Hell. The one frightened voter I saw had to walk past the wrecked car and the you’re-going-to-hell posters to find her polling place in a trailer parked in the middle of a construction site.
At 4:00, the Resolution Board stops for the day. In all, they’ve processed 681 ballots and rejected 32. Roughly, a 5 percent rejection rate.
Later that night, I watch as convicted felons carry blue and red boxes of Harrison County ballots into the courthouse. This is apparently one of the kinds of labor permitted to incarcerated Mississippians. The men, most of them white, carrying the votes will never vote. Like most other states, Mississippi has laws on the books disenfranchising felons—in the case of individuals convicted of some crimes, permanently; in other cases, temporarily. In fact, nearly one out of every ten Mississippi adults is forbidden from voting because of a felony, a figure more than triple the national rate.
ON ELECTION NIGHT, the race is called and Presley delivers a heartfelt concession speech, despite the thousands of absentee ballots left uncounted in the Harrison County Courthouse and other courthouses across the state.
It’s been 23 years since a Democrat was elected governor of Mississippi and 41 years since a Democrat was elected to represent the state in the U.S. Senate.
What might happen if Mississippi’s elections were truly fair and free from partisan shenanigans? My guess is that Republicans who oversee them don’t want to find out. Why change a winning formula?
Names of the Resolution Board members have been changed.