Macon-Bibb elections under the microscope

pramati@macon.comSeptember 14, 2013 

Early voting problems have cast a shadow over Tuesday’s election to choose the first leaders of Macon-Bibb County’s consolidated government.

During 17 days of the past three weeks, dozens of voters cast ballots in the wrong districts, forcing election officials to take extra steps to assure voting integrity and drawing the attention of state election investigators.

The number of people who voted in the wrong city-county commission races had swelled by Friday afternoon to 90, more than twice the number of miscast ballots previously acknowledged by the Board of Elections.

“I hope they put me in the right district,” said early voter Juanita Booker, who lives in District 3. “I’m worried the problems haven’t been corrected.”

The beleaguered local elections office has been under scrutiny since voting problems first surfaced in late August. During the final week of early voting, people stood in line for up to two hours as voting office workers checked each voter’s address against district maps.

The problems have some wondering whether election day on Tuesday will be smooth sailing or fraught with pitfalls. As the state continues its investigation, monitors will be sent to voting precincts across the area Tuesday to see if problems continue.

Rinda Wilson, chairwoman of the local elections board, said she thinks the problems have been solved.

“(Elections Supervisor) Jeanetta (Watson) told me that early voting is the best way to pick up on these problems,” she said. “I hope none of the races are close enough that it will matter. If it happens, we will do the right thing, whatever that entails. ... I realize that even if the outcome is not affected, people are still upset, and I understand that.”

Watson said her staff has worked with county Internet Technology officials in an effort to make certain the state’s new voting software is operating correctly. Bibb is the first county in Georgia to use the software, and Watson said some of the errors may have occurred because of programming bugs and poll workers trying to learn the new system.

Some voters said last week they didn’t mind waiting in line to vote early if it helped head off problems.

Johnny Christian, a District 8 voter, said it took him about 45 minutes to vote Thursday. He said he appreciated the poll workers taking the extra time to double-check addresses against districts.

“I’m worried about a (legal) challenge,” he said. “I like the way they are doing it. I like that things are being done the proper way. I expected the long line, but I want the votes to go to the right place.”

Others, however, expressed concern and disdain for the problems that plagued early voting.

Macon City Councilman Henry Ficklin, who is running for the District 2 Commission seat, said he thinks the early voting mistakes -- which include 17 people from District 3 who mistakenly voted in the District 2 commission race -- could prove to be too much of an issue to overcome. He speculated that results of that race could be thrown out if challenged in court.

“I asked them to postpone the early voting and look at all the district lines after I saw that (part of) College Street was listed in District 2. There’s no part of College Street in District 2,” said Ficklin, who faces fellow Councilman Larry Schlesinger and Paul Bronson in the race. “(The Bibb County Board of Elections) acknowledged the error, but for me to find that as a candidate is worrying.”

However, Bronson said he has faith in elections officials and thinks they are doing their best to serve the voters.

“I feel the election will be valid,” he said. “I trust in the ability of the county board of elections as well as the state. The issue came up, and (officials) did what was necessary when they became aware of it.”

Schlesinger was unavailable for comment Friday.

Despite the errors, it’s unlikely the outcomes of the district commission races could be challenged on legal grounds unless the final vote totals are very close to the number of actual miscast votes, officials said. The mayoral race -- whose candidates are listed on every ballot -- is not affected by the mix-ups.

Cody Whitlock, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said if a commission candidate challenges the validity of an outcome, the case would be separate from the state’s investigation and would be handled in Bibb County Superior Court.

Chris Grant, a Mercer University professor of political science, said a judge would be unlikely to accept a challenge if, for example, the 17 votes from District 3 erroneously cast in District 2 were in dispute and the race was decided by significantly more votes. That’s because ultimately the incorrect votes wouldn’t have had enough impact to shift the race in one direction or another, he said.

However, in close races, Grant said there may be valid reasons to toss out the results.

“If it’s a 20-point margin, I doubt a judge would give (a challenge) any validity,” he said. “It’s a serious issue if you’re getting the wrong ballot. It could wind up in a legal challenge even though (the elections board) said it was fixed. ... If it’s a low margin, like less than a half-percent, it might be enough for a judge to set aside the results. In the worst case, if there’s a question of validity, a judge could order a new election.”

Macon-Bibb election officials say they don’t expect the problems to spill over into Tuesday’s voting. Since people will be voting in their assigned precincts, poll workers already will have their correct information when voters sign in.

Watson said part of the early problems stem from how the new commission districts were drawn. Some of the borders end halfway down a street rather than incorporating the whole street, for example.

“My understanding is that you have these issues every 10 years during (congressional) redistricting,” she said. “This is more complex because there’s been redistricting in the county.”

Jil Pinkston, who lives in District 5, took her aunt to vote Thursday, but Pinkston decided to wait to cast her own vote until Tuesday because of the long wait. Pinkston said her aunt is in her 70s, so she was placed in a different line that wouldn’t take as long.

Pinkston said she didn’t mind the inconvenience of going to the polls twice if it meant making sure voting was being done correctly.

“I’d like for them to get it right,” she said. “I hate that, in the midst of this change, they have (these problems). But that’s what happens.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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