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Secretary of State: County's elections issues serious

By Robin Y. Richardson
Dec. 12, 2014 at 10 p.m.

Keith Ingram, director of elections for the Secretary of State's Office, described in a letter, addressed to Harrison County Judge Hugh Taylor, just how serious the mistakes and oversights made by the county's elections administrator Becky Dotson were for the 2014 general election.

The letter was one of the things the local elections commission took into consideration Friday as they called for Dotson's termination, which was approved by the Harrison County Commissioners Court.

"These issues are very serious," Ingram wrote in the letter dated Nov. 26.

Ingram said that after reading articles regarding the concerns and also a letter to the editor from Dotson printed in the Marshall News Messenger, he decided to give the county judge the Secretary of State's perspective on the situation.

In the letter, he noted how he became aware of the issues after being notified by military and overseas voters that they hadn't received their ballots by the deadline in compliance with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act.

"In keeping with the 45-day requirement, I send out a reminder to all county election administrators in advance of the deadline reminding them that the deadline is coming and giving them instructions," said Ingram. "Specifically, I mention that a lack of a ballot being programmed or returned from the vendor is not an excuse."

Ingram said they give specific instructions on the making of emergency ballots so that the deadline can be met even if the ballots aren't ready.

He said the deadline for this year's general election was Sept. 20. Ingram said they sent out the reminder email and ballot advisory on Sept. 10, and a follow-up email on Sept. 17 as a reminder.

"Specifically, I said: 'Every single FPCA (Federal Post Card Application) request in the office needs to be completed by the deadline. Not having ballot proofs back or not having completed logic and accuracy testing is not a sufficient excuse.'"

He said he advised that they will need to follow the emergency ballot procedure outlined in the previous memo he sent and get the ballots out by the deadline. Ingram said he also offered to assist with that process, if needed.

Ingram was under the impression that all counties were in compliance because, when asked, no counties reported any late ballots. It wasn't until he received a phone call on Sept. 24, that he learned differently.

"I received a phone call from Harrison County indicating the caller's belief that the military and overseas ballots had not been sent yet," said Ingram. "I sent out my first email to Harrison County election officials on the topic that same day."

He said although he didn't realize Taylor was the county judge, at the time he sent the e-mail, he included Taylor's address, which was in his list serve.

"I asked you all generally about the success of responding to military ballot requests. There was no reply," Ingram wrote. "I followed up with a time limit and more sternly worded request for information the next day, September 25."

He said after sending the correspondence a second time to the Harrison County email address he had on file, which included Taylor's, he finally received a call from someone - Taylor.

"I was surprised to know that I had been sending emails to the county judge, but I was relieved that you were involved and I asked you to have Becky Dotson contact me as soon as possible, if you could," Ingram wrote Taylor.

Ingram said while he knows that the elections administrator position is set up to be independent of political pressure and autonomous, he was hoping that the county judge could convince Dotson to contact the Secretary of State's Office with an update on the military ballot issue.

"I did hear form Becky on Sunday evening, the 28th," Ingram said, noting that was eight days past the deadline. "She promised the ballots would be mailed out the next day, Monday, the 29th and blamed Internet issues for not keeping the statewide voter registration system updated."

Ingram said on Sept. 30, the SOS received a complaint from an overseas voter that they had not yet received their ballot from Harrison County.

"My legal director assured the voter that we were working with Harrison County to insure that ballots were being sent out," said Ingram.

He said he requested a list of FPCA voters from Dotson and received it on Sept. 30, 10 days past the due date.

"We then contacted the voters to make sure the ones who had asked for an email of the blank ballots had received it and to inquire of the others if they would be willing to accept an emailed blank ballot or if they would prefer an overnight delivery service," Ingram said.

He said Oct. 1, the SOS heard from another voter who wanted to track their ballot in the ballot tracker.

"We requested that Becky input the information into the tracker as required by both federal and state law," Ingram said. "Later that day, all of the ballots had either been mailed or expressed to all of the 12 FPCA voters."

Ingram said that was 11 days after the 45-day deadline.

"Later we heard from a couple of the voters that the instructions and envelopes were not enclosed with the balloting materials," Ingram said. "We made sure the voters had what they needed."

Ingram said over the next few weeks, an influx of callers notified the state office, informing them of issues they were encountering with the regular ballots by mail.

"The initial ballot programmed by Mrs. Dotson did not have a space for write-in candidates even though we had included statewide write-in candidates in our ballot certification to all of the county election officials," Ingram said.

He said the ballot certification containing the statewide write-in candidates was sent to all county election administrators on Aug. 26. Ingram said, in addition, it was later discovered that one of the candidates had their name misspelled on the Harrison County ballots.

"Apparently, the elections office was waiting until they had corrected ballots to mail out before sending any of them. This is incorrect procedure," Ingram said.

He advised that the election code provides that regular domestic ballots by mail have to be sent out 38 days before an election.

"If they later have to be corrected, then the corrected ballots are mailed," Ingram said. "If the voter returns the incorrect ballot and not the correct one then the code provides that the ballot be counted."

He said the method he described gives voters the best chance to have their vote counted. Ingram further noted that a second corrected ballot notice was received from Harrison County on Oct. 21.

"I am not sure when regular ballots by mail were sent out, but it was substantially past the due date and the opportunity for voters to participate in the election was thus truncated," Ingram said.



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