City officials are trying to work out protocols on how to deal with Ward 1 mail-in ballots after the box of those ballots has been left unlocked in the city’s registrar’s office for a period of time unknown Wednesday.
Columbus Director of Operations David Armstrong confirmed to The Dispatch that the Ward 1 box was unlocked at City Hall on Wednesday for a period of time – a time when voters could vote by mail in person – but the lock was replaced after an observer reported it to him and City Clerk Brenda Williams. Neither he nor Williams knew how long it had been unlocked, Armstrong said.
He said Williams contacted the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office to determine what to do about the ballots in the ballot box.
No other ward absentee ballot boxes have been unlocked at any time, Armstrong said, and he believes the Ward 1 ballot box lock fell off by accident.
The ballot boxes are located on the floor of the civil status office, pressed against the wall. Each box has a padlock securing the bottom of the box. At the top of each box is a slot where voters can cast their ballots.
“I’m sure what happened, someone was walking up there – obviously we didn’t take it off – but someone hit him with the foot,” he said. “… That’s the logical explanation for me. I don’t know, but I guess that’s what happened.
He pointed out that no city official left the box intentionally unlocked.
Williams declined to comment on The Dispatch.
State Law requires that, although postal voting takes place in the days leading up to a municipal election, voters absent in person must deposit their ballots in a sealed box at the registrar’s office, according to an email to The Dispatch from the secretary of ‘State. The email added that Mississippi law “provides for penalties against officials who conduct an election without having locked and secured the ballot box or whose negligence results in the loss of votes and / or deprives voters of their vote. “.
Representatives of the Secretary of State’s office did not respond to questions from The Dispatch about the validity of the ballots placed in the ballot box while it remained unlocked.
Will Sanders, a member of the political group A Better Columbus, told The Dispatch that he and his wife, Leslie Sorrell, reported the box unlocked as they watched the ballot in the registrar’s office shortly after 1 p.m. Wednesday. He said the unsealed box in Ward 1 was pushed against a wall on the floor along with the other sealed boxes.
“We… went to get the information on the mail-in ballot, and I looked down and saw that the seal was missing from the Ward 1 box,” Sanders said.
Sanders and Armstrong both said they went to the office at other times of the week and didn’t notice the lock was off until Wednesday afternoon, but they both added that they hadn’t specifically searched.
Outgoing city councilor Ethel Stewart and her independent challenger Kallie Phillips show up in Ward 1.
Stewart was elected in 2019 to complete the unexpired term of her brother, Gene Taylor, following his death. ABC backed Phillips, although the nominee did not acknowledge any affiliation with the group.