Pine Belt election officials deal with primary ballot changes

Published: Mar. 2, 2016 at 5:45 PM CST|Updated: Mar. 2, 2016 at 10:25 PM CST
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HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Election officials in the Pine Belt and across the state are working to correct Mississippi primary election ballots after the state supreme court ordered another candidate to be added to the Democratic ballot.

"It's very, very unusual and probably historic in the handles of Mississippi voting to have an election ballot changed a week before the election," said Delbert Hosemann, Mississippi Secretary of State. "To change the election process a week before the election for president of the United States by the Democrat party and the Republican party is a massive undertaking. I can assure you that there are literally 1,000 people working on that process today."

Now, circuit clerks across Mississippi are working to handle the changes.

"When the Supreme Court first came down with the decision, of course the first thing was sheer panic," said Gwen Wilks, Forrest County circuit clerk. "This is the first election I've done, and now we've got to go back and fix everything."

Hosemann said, "They were thrown a big curve ball right here at the very end. Very difficult, but they're performing."

While a handful of counties will have to add Willie Wilson's name and reprint the paper ballots they use on election day, Hosemann said reprogramming the electronic machines that are used in 77 counties is a bigger issue.

"There are about 7,000 of those machines, and each and everyone now has to be reprogrammed based on the Supreme Court decision," Hosemann said. "So it's not only printing ballots. There are tens of thousands of those, but there are also 7,000 different machines that now have to be reorganized for our new ballot."

Wilks said, "The people who work on our voting machines, now they've had to come put some more work in. It's really been hard on them to get back to the counties they hadn't been to already."

Lamar County Circuit Clerk Martin Hankins said he is also dealing mostly with machines, but said his office had not fully programmed them before the court's decision.

"Of course we had already ordered our absentee ballots and everything without Mr. Wilson's name on there, and then last week, we were starting to encode our access cards and get everything ready for our voting machines," Hankins said. "We were going to start logic and accuracy programming and testing the machines last Friday, and we got an email from the Secretary of State's Office telling us about this case that was going on with Dr. Wilson to get him added to the ballot. So we had to put all of that off until yesterday and today, and we had to change all of those access cards. It was definitely time consuming and put a little constrain on us, but we got through it all."

Hosemann said another issue how to count absentee ballots that were used before the supreme court ruling.

"Over 10,000 people had already voted absentee, so our clerks are now having to be prepared to count the absentee ballots different from the machine totals," Hosemann said.

Hosemann also said all of the reprinting and reprogramming is coming at a cost.

"It will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, we're afraid, throughout Mississippi to get this corrected," he said.

Wilks said, "There is some money incurred in this. There's no way around it. For Forrest County as of right now, we're looking at about $3,000, give or take."

Hankins said, "We're a little disappointed in how the Democratic Party went about this and kind of set everybody back and are going to cost counties across the state money, as well as the state money. For them to make this mistake is just kind of baffling."

Mississippi's primary election is Tuesday, March 8.

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