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A mess in Mississippi

A mess in Mississippi

Obviously, supporters of incumbent Mississippi senator Thad Cochran want his primary challenger, Chris McDaniel, to accept his narrow loss in the recent runoff election, portraying his challenges to the results as little more than sour grapes.  McDaniel refused to concede on the night of the election, and said he had a lot more on his plate than just a general complaint about Cochran’s tactic of enticing support from Democrat crossover voters.

The state Republican Party hasn’t actually certified the results of the election yet, but it’s not because of McDaniels’ complaints about vote fraud; it’s because Mississippi voter ID laws allowed people without proper ID to cast provisional or “affadavit” ballots, giving them five business days to present identification to the election clerks.  The five-day window just concluded on Tuesday night.

McDaniel’s primary complaint is that a sizable number of the Democrats who voted for Cochran in the runoff were not actually eligible to do so, because they voted in the Democratic primary.  Cochran won by about 6,800 votes.  If McDaniel can document enough invalid ballots to cast the outcome of the runoff into doubt, he might be able to get another runoff.  (Which, frankly, he wouldn’t have a terribly good shot at winning, given that some of the groups that backed him have already accepted the outcome and withdrawn, while Cochran’s supporters still have deep pockets and an abiding interest in keeping him in Washington.  Perhaps McDaniel’s best hope would be for public outrage over the dubious outcome of the original runoff, plus resentment over what has been learned about Camp Cochran’s tactics over the past two weeks.)

Driving news at the moment are claims by McDaniel’s team that they’ve found nearly half of the invalid votes they need to toss this race back into the ring… although some reports, such as the Associated Press, are adamant that McDaniel hasn’t actually presented hard evidence for any invalid votes yet.

Chris McDaniel has presented no evidence to support his claim that voter fraud pushed Senate incumbent Thad Cochran to victory in Mississippi’s GOP runoff. And without evidence, the tea party-backed hopeful is going to have a tough time overturning Cochran’s nearly 6,800-vote win.

But a week after the balloting, McDaniel isn’t giving up.

McDaniel spokesman Noel Fritsch said Tuesday that the campaign continues to examine poll books for possible examples of crossover voting that is prohibited by state law — people who voted in both the Democratic primary June 3 and the Republican runoff June 24.

“We haven’t determined our specific legal recourse,” Fritsch said. “We’re kind of in a holding pattern, to a certain degree, while we’re collecting evidence.”

[...] The McDaniel campaign has sent representatives to most of Mississippi’s 82 counties to try to examine poll books to look for crossover voting, Fritsch said. The McDaniel campaign believes it has found about 3,300 crossover votes in 38 counties, state Sen. Michael Watson, an attorney who has been deeply involved in the campaign, said Tuesday. However, the campaign has not released documents to back up those numbers.

McDaniel nevertheless sent out a fundraising email that cited the thousands of irregularities his team claims to have discovered, and said, “Thanks to illegal voting from liberal Democrats, my opponent stole last week’s runoff election, but I’m not going down without a fight.”  Daniel press aide Noel Fritsch told the Daily Caller they were running into interference from Cochran-friendly state GOP officials:

In the search for improper votes, GOP officials who are affiliated with Cochran’s campaign are trying to block McDaniel’s search for invalidated votes that are recorded in the poll books, Fritsch said.

“They’re stalling in at least half of the counties across the state,” he said.

Some are “asking for large fees, and throwing up every roadblock you can imagine to stop us from seeing the poll books,” Fristch stated.

That resistance “tells us they don’t want us to see the poll books,” he added.

Roughly 84,000 voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary. To find 7,000 invalid votes, more than 8.5 percent of the 84,000 people who cast votes in the Democratic Primary would also have to have cast votes in the GOP runoff.

However, 19,000 absentee voters cast ballots in the GOP run-off, and many of those votes may be improper, say McDaniel’s allies.

“We haven’t gotten into them yet, but we’re confident that is where a lot of their effort was concentrated, and that’s where we’ll find a lot more ineligible votes,” Fritsch said.

At some point, this boils down to a straightforward data issue: either any given ballot came from a Democrat who voted in his party’s June 3 primary, and was thus ineligible to vote in the GOP runoff, or it does not.  Either those allegedly improper ballots can be documented, or they cannot.

The other big bone of contention in Mississippi is an allegation that the Cochran campaign participated in an outright vote-buying scheme, which USA Today reports the Cochran campaign has addressed with a formal denial, and some talk of filing lawsuits against those who made the accusations:

Blogger Charles C. Johnson of GotNews.com is reporting that Stevie Fielder says the Cochran campaign told him to offer black voters in the Meridian area $15 each to vote for Cochran in the June 24 GOP primary runoff against state Sen. Chris McDaniel.

Cochran campaign spokesman Jordan Russell called the accusations of illegal vote buying “baseless and false.”

“It comes from a blogger who in the last 24 hours has accused a Mississippi public official of being responsible for an individual’s death and had to retract other outlandish accusations regarding another Mississippi elected official,” Russell said. “The author of this article admits he paid his source for the story.”

[...] The GotNews report includes text messages Fielder says are from Cochran campaign Minority Outreach Director Saleem Baird, who is on leave from Sen. Roger Wicker’s office while campaigning for Cochran. They include discussions of the campaign asking for names and addresses to provide envelopes of money. Fielder said the campaign agreed to pay him $16,000 but stiffed him on payment.

Fielder could not be reached for comment early Tuesday.

Cochran’s spokesman went on to describe its relationship with Fielder as entirely above-board get-out-the-vote legwork:

“We hire a lot of people — black, white, young, old — to help with get-out-the-vote efforts,” Russell said. “… Whether you’re a high school kid in northeast Jackson or a retired nurse in Greenwood, if you’re out working doors for us, you get paid in cash, in an envelope. Saleem asked the guy for names and addresses for (Federal Election Commission) filing purposes. Why would you ask a guy for names and addresses if you’re buying votes?”

Jordan said the campaign agreed to pay Fielder $600, half up front, for campaign work.

“He was paid for reimbursement for gas, driving people around, get-out-the-vote work,” Russell said. “But he never completed any work for the second $300. He never provided any names and addresses of people he said he was getting. … He waffled on providing names and addresses.”

Perhaps the Cochran campaign should have dug into Fielder’s background a bit more before retaining his services.  The same biographical details that cast doubt on his vote-buying story don’t cover Cochran’s human-resources people with glory:

The report says Fielder is an associate pastor at First Missionary Baptist Church in Meridian.

Church Deacon Robert Markham said Fielder is not an associate pastor at the church but is a self-proclaimed minister.

Church member Melba Clark, a member of the Lauderdale County Democratic Executive Committee and its former longtime chairman, said she doesn’t believe any vote buying happened.

“Not only do I not believe any vote buying went on, I don’t even know who Mr. Fielder was supposed to have taken to the polls,” Clark said. “I’m not aware of any people that Mr. Fielder took to the polls or anybody having promised money to people. Yes, I think I would have heard about that.”

Both Markham and Clark say Fielder’s reputation in the area is less than stellar.

“Whenever an election comes around, he makes himself available to whatever party he can get to avail him,” Clark said. “His reputation here is not good, and that’s putting it mildly.”

As USA Today reports, there were earlier allegations of vote-buying before the election, “after a super PAC supporting Cochran hired a Democratic political operative to turn out votes.”  For what it’s worth, the Mississippi Democratic Party chairman says he heard reports of “walking-around money” getting passed out, and the director of the Mississippi Democratic Trust thinks the allegations are serious enough to merit further investigation.  The love affair between Senator Cochran and his Democrat friends was brief, but torrid.  As they go to work on the Republican incumbent with hammer and tongs to make him look shifty ahead of the general election, Cochran can seek solace in memories of that happy afternoon on June 24, and maybe blow the dust off a few of the  editorials that praised him for making the Republican Big Tent into a three-ring circus of cross-party outreach.

Election-integrity advocates True the Vote filed a federal lawsuit against the Mississippi Secretary of State and the Mississippi Republican Party, demanding independent verification of the runoff results.  The suit asks a federal judge to issue an injunction that would prevent certification of the election until verification has been completed.

“All we are asking is that the MS State Republican Party follow the law; allow their designated county representatives to inspect the poll books and ballots, give them the review time they are permitted by law, and allow them to uphold their responsibility to MS voters,” said True the Vote president Catherine Englebrecht in a statement.

An Associated Press report on the suit says Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s office “does not possess poll books or have authority to publicly release them,” which would seem to defeat the purpose of keeping records that could be used to detect invalid votes.  An article at World Net Daily discusses the bewildering status of these poll books:

The confusion stems from the different ways counties handle polling books and ballot boxes, and changes in the law over the last 20 years. Polling books are maintained for each party and list names, addresses and birthdays of all registered voters and voting history. Comparing entries would reveal if, for example, Democratic voters had voted in both the Democratic primary and the GOP runoff. However, since 1997, state law requires redacting date of birth, age and Social Security numbers, so accurately identifying double voting is difficult.

Ballot boxes, on the other hand, contain paper ballots, absentee ballots, affidavit ballots, signature cards and other records. They are sealed after the election and cannot be opened until after the county certifies. Campaigns then have 12 days to examine the contents. Some counties leave poll books in the ballot box, making them also inaccessible. Some keep poll books out. It is the latter records that the McDaniel campaign has likely already reviewed. While ballot box information becomes available after counties certify, the election challenge deadline starts when the state party certifies.

True the Vote’s lawsuit seeks to disable the redaction requirement and force the ballot boxes open based on federal law, whether the county has certified or not.

One other legal wrinkle that occasionally crops up in discussions of the Mississippi runoff is a state rule – universally regarded as nearly unenforceable – that says people who don’t “intend” to vote Republican in the general election aren’t supposed to vote in GOP primary races.  Of course, proving beyond all doubt that a registered Democrat has absolutely no intention of voting for Thad Cochran in the general election is a difficult challenge, so the rule about not voting in both party primaries is the only real protection against mischief votes.

As mentioned, that’s a test that can be performed empirically, so it should be done as soon as possible.  Delaying tactics are unacceptable.  So is continuing a challenge against the results of the runoff, if the integrity of the ballots is properly verified.  Everyone should be able to agree that this thing needs to be resolved quickly.  Except, of course, for Senator Cochran’s erstwhile Democrat allies, who are greatly enjoying the show.

Update: Senator Cochran’s campaign held a conference call on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the runoff situation.  It started out okay, if a bit crowded, with 67 people on the line.  Cochran adviser Austin Barbour saying he welcomed McDaniel’s challenge, but adding “the time has certainly come in our minds for the McDaniel campaign and their allies to either put up or shut up.”  Then, according to Roll Callthings got weird:

Then someone who was evidently not a reporter interrupted Barbour.

That person repeatedly said that “black people harvested cotton” and accused the Cochran campaign of “harvesting black votes.” Barbour asked him to stop multiple times, saying he would answer questions from anyone at the end of his statement.

The conference call line did not give the Cochran campaign the ability to mute callers’ lines, so there was no way to force the caller to stop speaking.

“I’m happy to address any question, no matter the lunacy of it,” he said.

But the man on the line, who did not identify himself, could not be placated. Finally, Barbour apologized and announced he was ending the call, telling national press that they had the contact information for the campaign if they had any questions.

At that point, someone who was possibly a reporter, interrupted to try to keep Barbour on the line. Barbour cut the line.

With the Cochran campaign people gone, callers on the line broke into an argument — a woman berated the man who had interrupted. The man defended himself, saying he had a legitimate question. More people got into the argument and began discussing the identity of the caller asking the “cotton” question.

Someone asked if it was Charles Johnson, a conservative blogger who has been loudly alleging the Cochran campaign paid for voters. A woman on the call said it was not him. Johnson has been open in his support for McDaniel. He tweeted the call-in number 15 minutes before the call started, asking people to join him in crashing it.

Thirty minutes after the call ended, the call line was still open. Someone was using a soundboard of President Barack Obama’s voice saying “Hey! What’s up?” Someone else was playing the audio from the movie “Animal House.”

Evidently there were still a number of people on the line, this reporter included, just waiting to see what would happen next.

“If someone would play ‘Let it Go,’ I bet everybody would get off the phone,” a man opined.

No one took him up on it.

Well, just in case this happens again, I’m here to help:

 

 

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