Better Safe AND Sorry? Hinds County, MS to Over-Order Ballots to Comply With State Law, Minimize Risk

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[Image courtesy of clarionledger]

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Mississippi’s Hinds County (Jackson) is holding a primary in August – and regardless of turnout, there will be piles and piles of ballots left over given reports that the county election office is ordering tens of thousands more ballots than registered voters. The Clarion-Ledger has more:

Hinds County Election Commission Chairwoman Connie Cochran admitted she violated the law by not ordering enough ballots for last year’s general election, so she plans to order approximately 66,000 more ballots than there are registered voters in the county for the August primary.

Because of the shortage of ballots in some precincts in November, some voters had to either stand in line for hours to wait for additional ballots to be delivered to the precincts.

“We will have adequate ballots for the primaries,” Cochran said. “There is a lot of waste in here. We are throwing away thousands and thousands of dollars, but it is the law.”

The major reason (or culprit) is a state law that mandates 75% ballot coverage, even in primaries:

Cochran said there are about 50 precincts in the county with no Republican voters, but state law mandates the same number of ballots be available for both Democratic and Republican precincts.

Cochran said an attorney general’s opinion stated state law mandates an equal number of ballots for Democrat and Republican precincts for primaries.

State law requires that enough ballots be ordered to account for 75 percent of registered voters in a county. Hinds County had 155,912 registered voters last year, meaning about 116,934 ballots should have been printed. Cochran ordered 58,350 ballots for the Nov. 4 general election — less than half of what was required by law for the general election.

There is a backstory here; namely, the switch from touchscreen to optical scan and the necessity of the election office to harmonize that change with state law and wildly fluctuating turnout:

Cochran said that since the county went to a paper ballot system in 2013, she had never ordered the required 75 percent of ballots.

Cochran said this week that she had provided Hinds County supervisors with a spreadsheet detailing the number of ballots that will be printed for each precinct, totaling 222,143 ballots for the primaries. Cochran has said each ballot costs 25 cents.

Mississippi Democratic field director Jacqueline Amos, chairwoman of the Hinds County Democratic Executive Committee, said the massive expense for ballots is necessary in this and every election because of the current paper ballot system.

“We are required by state law to order a number of ballots equal to 75 percent of the registered voters in the precinct,” Amos said. “This was never a problem when we had touchscreen voting because we only used paper ballots in the rare instance of provisional or affidavit ballots.”

“Unless and until state law is changed, as long as Hinds County uses the current system, we will see these huge printing costs at every election. Personally, I believe it is a waste, but we are bound by the mechanics of the system the Board of Supervisors bought,” Amos said .

Hinds County Republican Executive Chairman Pete Perry said, “I think it is way too many, but it is what the law requires” …

Perry differs with Amos about the voting system used by Hinds County. He said he believes the scan voting machine system in place now is better than the previous touchscreen voting machines. He said it is more efficient and provides a better system to track votes.

On one hand, it’s clear that Hinds (like many jurisdictions) could benefit from a better use of forecasting that allows the county to deal with fluctuations in turnout and confront what I call the “snowplow problem” in election administration. But even with that approach, there is the challenge of state laws mandating ballot coverage – and the desire of election officials to minimize risk in the increasingly-contentious world of elections. After a surge in turnout associated with last year’s general election, Hinds is likely using the state law as political cover for the uncertainty associated with ballot printing – cover that will be expensive for the county:

Perry said in one precinct that has 2,200 registered voters, the most people who have ever voted in any election are 100 in the Democratic primary and 50 in the Republican. However, the law mandates that enough ballots be available for 75 percent of the 2,200 registered voters in the precinct.

“The county is going to spend in that one precinct $1,000 when they ought to be spending about $50,” Perry said.

Perry said Cochran is following the letter of the law so if there is a screw up, she won’t be blamed. [emphasis added]

This pressure is why it will be difficult to eliminate or change state ballot coverage laws, even when all concerned seem to agree that they are wasteful. Until legislators are confident that whatever forecasting tool or rule is used to calculate ballot coverage is sufficient to serve voters – and election officials know they won’t blamed or criticized for following such a rule in case the forecast is wrong – counties like Hinds will be safe and sorry when it comes to printing ballots.

In short, it’s a smart move that also makes no sense whatsoever.

Stay tuned.

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