After running out of ballots in Black precincts, Mississippi officials blame human error, poor training

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The county election officials under whose watch ballot shortages hampered voting in Mississippi’s largest county said technical mishaps and insufficient training were to blame for election day chaos in November.

At a meeting with representatives from a coalition of statewide and national civil rights organizations, Hinds County election commissioners said Monday that their mishaps caused several polling locations in Hinds County to run out of ballots. They admitted to sharing the wrong voter data with the company they contracted to print ballots, which directly led to the ballot shortages.

“Complete human error. I hate that the citizens of Hinds County had to experience that,” said Commissioner RaToya Gilmer McGee.

Hinds County Election Commissioners Kidada Brown (left) and Yvonne Robinson-Horton (right) confer during a special meeting of the Hinds County Election Commission Monday in Jackson, Mississippi with representatives of a coalition of national and local civil rights organizations. (Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

But the commissioners, all Democrats, also pointed to what they said was inadequate guidance from Secretary of State Michael Watson, a Republican. The commissioners said they had to rely on a training manual written for election officials across the state.

“If there are 82 counties in the state of Mississippi, there are 82 ways to do things. And so there is no streamlining, there are no checks and balances, there are no policies and procedures,” Gilmer McGee said.

In Mississippi’s Nov. 7 general election, up to nine voting precincts in Hinds County ran out of ballots. People waited up to two hours to vote as election officials made frantic trips to office supply stores so they could print ballots and deliver them to polling places. Voting groups and political parties filed legal papers that aimed to keep polls open later or prevent them from staying open.

Hinds County is majority Black and a Democratic stronghold. It’s unclear how many people left without voting and the political affiliations of the most affected voters.

When Hinds County resident Monica Taylor got to the polls, someone told her there were no ballots. She asked when there would be ballots, but nobody knew.

“My grandfather is in the civil rights museum. This is what he fought for. So I’m not a person you can tell ‘we don’t have any ballots’ and think I’m going to walk away,” Taylor said at a public meeting last week. “I’m not going to walk away.”

With the 2024 election less than a year away, the situation in Hinds County has drawn the attention of the congressional committee with direct oversight over federal elections and civil rights leaders.

Derrick Johnson, the national president of the NAACP who attended college in Jackson, said he hoped the episode wouldn’t depress voter turnout in future elections.

“Voting is the tool to ensure one’s voice is heard in this country. It is our currency in this democracy,” Johnson said in an interview. “You don’t quit, you continue to move forward to make sure this democracy works.”

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The commissioners said they didn’t receive enough specific guidance on how to print the right number of ballots for the populous county’s “split precincts,” polling locations where voters use different ballots based on their residential address.

In a statement after the meeting, Secretary of State Michael Watson said his office was open to providing more training, but that Hinds County was unique in its election management troubles.

“We are always happy to answer questions and will gladly spend time training those who need additional help. Heading into the 2023 election, all 82 counties received the same training and resources from our office,” Watson told The Associated Press. “No other county experienced the issues we saw in Hinds County.”

The five-member Commission agreed to Monday’s meeting after the civil rights coalition said they had failed to provide enough information about what went wrong on election day.

After the meeting, Leah Wong, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said she hoped the Commission would agree to future meetings ahead of the 2024 election.

“Clearly, there are a lot more things to troubleshoot to be better for 2024. We are looking forward to working with them,” Wong said.

Harya Tarekegn, policy director for the non-profit legal group Mississippi Center for Justice, said Hinds County could have smoother elections with the right policy changes.

“That’s what people fought for during the Civil Rights Movement, that’s what people continue to fight for,” Tarekegn said. “Our ancestors fought for it, we continue to fight for it, and there will be a day when Mississippi runs the best elections. When Hinds County runs the best elections.”

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The county election officials in Hinds County, Mississippi admitted that technical errors and insufficient training were to blame for ballot shortages during the November election. They shared the wrong voter data with the company printing the ballots, leading to the shortages. There was also criticism of inadequate guidance from the Secretary of State, Michael Watson. As a result, up to nine voting precincts ran out of ballots, causing long wait times for voters. The incident has raised concerns about voter suppression and has drawn the attention of the congressional committee with direct oversight over federal elections and civil rights leaders. There is also hope that future elections will run more smoothly with the right policy changes. Despite the challenges, there is a commitment from civil rights organizations and local officials to ensure that voter turnout is not depressed in future elections, with the understanding that voting is a tool for ensuring one’s voice is heard in the democracy.

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