Hot-Blooded Vote Counters

Despite warnings that an intra-office feud could jeopardize its integrity, the Nov. 2 elections in Hinds County appeared to go off without a hitch. With its hands full handling post-election vote tallies and the like, the Hinds County Election Commission has been largely silent since last week, but the commission's issues are not likely to go away.

District 2 Commissioner Bobbie Graves told county supervisors at a Nov. 1 meeting that a conflict between her, District 1 Commissioner Marilyn Avery and a machine technician made it impossible for her to guarantee that the election would proceed fairly.

"I wouldn't sign it in blood," Graves told the Jackson Free Press.

Graves' suggestion proved unfounded, District 3 Commissioner Jermal Clark told the Jackson Free Press Monday.

"I don't think that affected (the election)—in my opinion, none whatsoever," Clark said.

Graves, who did not return a request for comment, told supervisors that her immediate conflict with Avery and technician Pat Wilson stemmed from her desire to observe preliminary testing on voting machines several weeks before the election. Wilson refused to conduct testing in her presence, and Avery used obscene language while demanding that she leave the commission's warehouse, Graves alleged.

District 4 Commissioner Connie Cochran told supervisors a different story. Graves had actually tried to do the testing herself, and Wilson stormed out of the commission's warehouse out of frustration, Cochran maintained.

Graves also complained to the board that Avery and Cochran, both of whom have served on the commission since 1992, have refused to train her and Clark in some of the commission's functions.

Newly elected election commissioners receive training from the Secretary of State's office at the Election Commissioners Association of Mississippi's annual conference, ECAM President Larry Gardner said. In addition to covering ethics and state law, the training includes sessions on the use of specific voting machines.

Hinds County is one of five counties in Mississippi that does not use Premier Election Solution AccuVote-TSX machines, so veteran members of its election commission usually lead training on the county's machines for newly elected commissioners, Gardner said.

When she addressed the board Nov. 1, Cochran suggested that outsiders had misrepresented the dispute between Graves, who is black, and Avery, who is white, as a racial conflict. Cochran and Avery are both Republicans, however, with strong ties to the state GOP establishment. Cochran is sister-in-law to current U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, while Avery is married to former Hinds County Republican Party Chairman Ken Avery.

Graves, meanwhile, worked for the Democratic National Committee in Arkansas before moving to Hinds County.

Gardner, a registered Republican, said that his organization opposes partisan affiliations for election commissioners.

"We've been trying to get that changed for a number of years," Gardner said. "We should be nonpartisan. We should be no different than a judge, because we sit in judgment, and we certify elections.

Commissioners must disavow any partisan bias upon taking office, so it makes little sense for them to run with an affiliation, Gardner argued. Commissioners' party affiliations can arouse suspicion in close elections, he said.

"Let's say, for instance, you've got five Republican elections commissioners, and you've got a real close vote between a Democrat and a Republican," Gardner said.

"You would wonder about the fairness of it, would you not?"

Since 2003, ECAM has opposed party affiliations for election-commission races, but legislation it has supported to do away with the party identification has failed thus far. ECAM Vice President for Legislation Gary Knight blames the failure on opposition from Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, who chairs the House Elections and Apportionment Committee.

Reynolds did not return a call for comment by press time.


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