Flaws in how Mississippi reports elections add to its problems

New York TimesJuly 17, 2014 

Amid the allegations of fraud and the legal wranglings over the Mississippi Republican primary and runoff elections in June, one thing is clear: The lack of timely, useful election results has not helped assure citizens the election was fair.

The process of publishing certified election results in Mississippi is long, sometimes complicated and filled with opportunities for delays and mistakes. The confusion and errors in the results of June's primary and runoff elections for the U.S. Senate underscore the vulnerabilities of a system that is antiquated compared with most other states.

A national rarity

Mississippi is the rare state in which the state agency in charge of elections does not offer live election-night reporting. Some counties, such as DeSoto, provide unofficial results on election nights, but not at the precinct level. Other counties have no website or no election results posted at all. Contrast that with states such as West Virginia, which offers unofficial results on election nights and precinct-level results soon after, or South Dakota, which had live maps with precinct-level results for its primary election June 3.

Here is how the results reporting process works in Mississippi: First, an election is held. Voters cast their ballots at polls in the state's 82 counties, which then tally the results. Mississippi's counties use a variety of voting methods, including electronic voting machines and paper ballots.

Next, those results need to be certified, or approved by a county committee tasked with overseeing the election. In the case of a primary or primary runoff election, party executive committees do that work, and they have 10 days after the election to certify the results.

Finally, the state party committees print the certified results and send them via fax to the secretary of state's office, where they are scanned to a PDF file and posted on the state's website where the public can view or download them.

Errors are very possible

There are multiple points in this process where mistakes or delays can make it harder for the public to know about the results or create confusion about them. Since the June 3 primary, some of those flaws have come into view.

The journey by fax isn't always kind to results files, rendering some of them nearly illegible. The June 24 runoff results file for Simpson County was missing a page (the secretary of state's office replaced it with the full file after I sent an email pointing out the error). The files aren't always posted within the 10 day-span, either: Forrest County's runoff results file was stamped as being received by the state on July 8, two weeks after the election. Pam Weaver, an official with the secretary of state's office, said her agency posted the files as soon as they were received.

Harrison County mistakes

Other files contain apparent mistakes in tabulation. In Harrison County, two precincts reported zero votes in the primary for Chris McDaniel, the state senator who challenged Cochran. Although McDaniel's total for Harrison County includes the votes from those precincts, the precinct breakdowns did not contain them.

I found that apparent error July 14, nearly a month after the results had been published, and it appears that the McDaniel campaign was unaware of it until then (supporters of McDaniel said it constituted "massive fraud," which isn't clear from the voting records alone). Later that day, McDaniel's Facebook page featured a post about it asking, "How is this possible?"

A long process

Mississippi's results reporting processes don't address questions of voter qualification or whether any voters broke state election laws. The system doesn't guarantee that an outcome is flawed. But an improved process, including using modern technology to give timely access to election results, could help remove some of the doubts about elections that inevitably occur in closely fought contests.

Waiting days for results that need to be transcribed to be most useful in helping the public understand an election can encourage the idea that something could go wrong, or has gone wrong.

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