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Status of Harrison County elections official on agendas

By Robin Y. Richardson
Dec. 9, 2014 at 10 p.m.

<p>Becky Dotson</p>

The Harrison County Elections Commission and the Harrison County Commissioners Court will convene in special-called meetings Friday to discuss the position of the elections administrator, Becky Dotson.

Harrison County Judge Hugh Taylor said he could not comment on the matter because it is a personnel issue.

The elections commission will meet first in closed session, beginning at 1 p.m., in the jury room of the Harrison County Historical Courthouse.

The special-called executive session of the commissioners court will convene immediately after, beginning at 1:30 p.m. in the commissioners courtroom of the historical courthouse to discuss the position.

Following the discussion, the court will convene in open session to take action on matters discussed concerning her position.

Harrison County was the last county to submit election tallies to the state for the Nov. 4 general election nearly 24 hours after the polls closed.

The elections administration , came under fire throughout the election cycle, particularly from the Democratic Party, which expressed concerns regarding her management of the election.

During that time, the elections commission held a special-called meeting during the weeks of early voting to address concerns presented in a letter by local Democratic Party Chairwoman Maxine Golightly, who is also a member of the elections commission.

Golightly said she decided to voice her concern after receiving numerous calls from voters informing her that they either hadn't received the mailed-in ballot they requested or had received one with inaccurate information.

"I realize mistakes and errors, but after so many mistakes it's incompetency somewhere," Golightly, said at the time.

"We firmly believe that these completely preventable errors, including sending timely applicants ballots far removed from their application dates, sending applicants multiple ballots and failing to send correctly registered voters registration certificates in a timely manner, will certainly result in serious voter confusion and could well result in voter suppression," Golightly wrote in the letter.

She said the concerns addressed in the letter are issues that she and party members have either witnessed first-hand at the elections office or have received from other voters who have told them what they have experienced with regard to the elections office.

The letter requested that all documents relating to the 2014 election in Harrison County be retained and available for inspection.

Other members of the elections commission who echoed Golightly's sentiments about the delay in people receiving their ballots included County Clerk and local election commission's member Patsy Cox, who was on the ballot for re-election.

"I know one (original ballot) that sat over there over 10 days, and there's no explanation for it," Cox said during that particular meeting.

As the ballot board was well into the next day of trying to tally up results, nearly 24 hours after the polls closed, Cox, whose name was misspelled on the original printing of the ballots, expressed her displeasure in Dotson's handling of the election again, saying she wanted the public to know that she wasn't the cause for the delay.

"I just want it made perfectly clear this problem they're having is not my fault because my name was misspelled (on the ballot)," Cox said, noting that she didn't even ask the elections office to reprint the ballot with a correction.

"The first mistake was when the first certified write-in (candidate) line was not put on the ballot and she had to do a corrected ballot," Cox, who is also a former elections administrator, said.

County commissioners William Hatfield and James Greer also spoke out while waiting for the final tally, expressing their disappointment with the process, stressing that the commissioners court afforded the elections office every opportunity to have a smooth election.

Emails, obtained by the News Messenger through a freedom of information request, sent from the Secretary of State's office to the elections office, show that Keith Ingram, director of the elections division, admonished Dotson to either meet deadlines or face reprimands.

In an email sent Thursday, Sept. 25, regarding the delay of military ballots, Ingram inquired about the lateness of ballots in the following categories: domestic military, overseas civilian and overseas military. In the email, he asked Dotson the cause of the delay and advised her that the reporting deadline was approaching in a few days.

Emails show that several citizens contacted the Secretary of State's Office, advising that they haven't received their ballot, and informing that the local elections office was violating the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act.

On Wednesday, Oct. 1, Ashley Fischer, legal director for the elections division, notified Dotson that she would need to express mail a ballot to a voter and include in the cover letter that "Harrison County did not meet the deadline required under the federal MOVE Act."

According to U.S. Department of Justice's website, justice.gov, the MOVE ACT provides greater protections for service members, their families and other overseas citizens. Among other provisions, the MOVE Act requires states to transmit validly-requested absentee ballots to the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) voters no later than 45 days before a federal election, when the request has been received by that date, except where the state has been granted an undue hardship waiver approved by the Department of Defense for that election.

Emails show that the SOS ended up having to email FPCA (Federal Post Card Application) voters due to the delay of ballots, notifying them that Harrison County was late mailing the ballots to MOVE Act voters, and that their ballot may not arrive in time for them to mark their ballot and return it to Harrison County in a timely fashion.

"Therefore, Ms. Fischer (the state's legal director) offered for your ballot to be emailed, and per your request this correspondence includes your unmarked ballot for the upcoming election," the email stated.

The email also included instructions for marking the ballot, instructions for processing the ballot, and a list of certified write-in candidates, if applicable. In an email written on Sept. 30, to a distressed voter, Ingram informed the voter that he spoke to Dotson and that she understands that the delay cannot happen again.

"In informed her that she must use Word to create emergency ballots or even hand write them in the future, but she cannot miss deadline and then compound the error by ignoring our office," Ingram wrote.

Dotson explained to the News Messenger before that the lack of reporting activity was due to downed computers. She said after the problem was fixed, she immediately jumped on it, meeting the demands of the Secretary of State's Office. She said the mailing of the military ballots arrived during a time when she was facing issues with programming equipment and handling the influx of ballot by mail applications.

Dotson also said she was not intentionally trying to impede the rights of voters as an email sent to her from Ingram on Friday, Sept. 26, concluded.

In the email, Ingram informed Dotson that he has spoken with several people in Harrison County, and has determined that she was impeding the rights of voters due to her failure to meet deadlines.

"We believe you have not met certain deadlines and requirements under federal law and the Texas Election Code," Ingram wrote. "In failing to perform the duties of your office, you are failing the voters of Harrison County, and abusing the rights of voters and impeding the free exercise of those voting rights."

Ingram told Dotson because of her actions and omissions, the Secretary of State's Office was giving her three days to contact the office and report the status of the mail ballots for FPCA voters and county residents.

"If you have not complied by that time, then we will alert the U.S. Department of Justice of your failure to send out the FPCA ballots," Ingram wrote. "In addition, we may pursue all remedies available to us under Texas Election Code 31.005 in order to protect the rights of the voters of Harrison County."

In an email sent to an overseas voter on Sept. 30, Paschell informed the voter that Ingram had notified the U.S. Department of Justice that Harrison County did not meet the deadline, and thanked the voter for bringing the matter to their attention.

An email sent to an overseas voter also on Sept. 30 advises the voter that the SOS had discussed the delay of military ballots with County Judge Hugh Taylor and an unnamed county commissioner.

When questioned about concerns during the election process, Dotson maintained that her office, which includes herself and two new staff members, takes responsibility for everything that happens in the office and does all it can to correct mistakes.

She noted that this was her first time administering a massive election and only had a short window to figure things out since her hiring in January.

"I was thrown in here. I'm learning as I go, also. I have to do all those invoices at the same time without any time in between elections," she explained before. "I had three elections from the end of February to the end of May. I just started Jan. 21."

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