PERRY/Prosecuting election fraud
Thursday, April 17, 2014 1:00 AM
In the heat of campaigns, accusations of misdeeds which violate Mississippi's election laws get thrown around in the press with candidates and supporters calling for investigations, but typically after the election passes, there is little appetite for pursuing the allegations. Such is not the case for District Attorney Michael Guest who represents Madison and Rankin Counties. He has obtained seven convictions for voter fraud since 2010. He credits Assistant District Attorney Bryan Buckley for spearheading these prosecutions.
Earlier this month, Cobby Mondale Williams, a 2013 candidate for alderman in Canton, was sentenced to five years in prison (suspended) and five years parole for knowingly registering a disenfranchised convicted felon to vote. (Also, in 2012, Williams was an independent candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Mississippi's Second Congressional District and received 1.4 percent of the vote.)
Williams approached a Canton resident to register to vote, but she told Williams she was not eligible due to convictions on false pretense, forgery and identity theft. Williams persisted and had her fill out a voter registration form and delivered it to the circuit clerk, in violation of Mississippi election law. A Madison County Grand Jury indicted Williams who pled guilty.
"The crime was Mr. Williams knew [she] was not eligible to vote and still attempted to register her to vote by turning in the forms to the Circuit Clerk. It does not matter if you are a current holder of political office, a candidate for office, or a voter, we will prosecute anyone who violates the statutes pertaining to voter fraud," stated Guest in a press release.
Guest also prosecuted absentee ballot fraud when Terrance Watts of Canton, who had previously been convicted of a disenfranchising crime and voted twice by absentee ballot in 2009. Watts pled guilty and was sentenced to five years (the maximum) for each count to run consecutively (ten years total).
In two weeks, in another case from the 2013 Canton elections, Madison County Democratic Executive Committee member Kimberly Readus faces trial on two felony counts of corrupt conduct by an election official. Each count carries with it up to two years in prison. She was already convicted on misdemeanor charges for her actions on election day.
Typically the pursuit of election law violations fall to local district attorneys, and Guest has shown he is willing to investigate and prosecute these misdeeds. Patricia Burchell, the district attorney for Forrest and Perry counties, continues her investigation and pursuit of "potential criminal activity" involving the recent mayoral elections in Hattiesburg as well.
On occasion, the state attorney general also gets involved. Attorney General Jim Hood pursued an investigation from the 2007 election in Benton County resulting in the indictment of 16 individuals on counts of voter fraud and conspiracy to commit voter fraud. All were convicted of vote buying.
Election law violations are serious crimes because they strike at the heart of the democratic process. When someone votes, who should not, it cancels out a vote cast by a legal voter. Mississippi has a shameful history of preventing legal voters from accessing the ballot box - specifically black Mississippians during the Jim Crow era. Allowing fraud today to cancel out the hard earned vote of any Mississippian is a shadow of past discriminatory policies.
I've documented in this column before examples of fraud which occurred because no proof was required to prove the identification of a voter at the poll. In a recent report by the Secretary of State, another example was provided from the recent Hattiesburg elections. But beginning June 3 in Mississippi, voter identification will be required to cast a vote. Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann has been conducting outreach to ensure any Mississippi voter without the necessary identification receives a voter identification card without cost to the voter.
He is also working to ensure election officials follow the law. In February, Hosemann sought and received an Attorney General's Opinion on the penalties for an election official failing to require identification from a voter. Under statute, that would constitute "corrupt conduct" which carries with it up to two years in prison. Additionally, conviction of "willfully refusing or knowingly failing" to perform any duty under election laws could result in a fine of $25 to $100 or imprisonment for 10 to 90 days.
If you suspect election fraud, you can report your information to your local district attorney, county prosecutor, or the Public Integrity Division of the Mississippi Attorney General's Office.
On another matter, in last week's column I wrote that state Senator David Blount voted against the Senate version of a teacher pay raise because teachers not in schools rated "A" or "B" may not receive a merit supplement in the third year. He voted for both versions of the teacher pay raise, although that provision did concern him.
Brian Perry is a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.