August 9, 2019 10:52:33 AM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
Absentee voting is meant to be a tool for voters, not a campaign strategy for candidates.
In Columbus, some people don't seem to have gotten that memo.
The trick is simple. A campaign volunteer, either paid or unpaid, canvasses neighborhoods where elderly or disabled citizens live and convince them to call the city registrar's office for an absentee ballot. Once the citizens receive those ballots in the mail, they call those volunteers back over to their homes, where they either fill out the ballot and have the volunteer sign as a witness or have the volunteer fill out the ballot for them. Then someone mails the completed ballot back to the registrar for counting on election day.
You ask the candidates, and they tell you it's a completely honest, forthright and objective process. There's no push to get these people -- again, many of whom are elderly and disabled -- to vote a certain way. They're out trying to raise participation and make sure these vulnerable citizens' voices are heard.
The numbers tell a vastly different story, and they point to Columbus candidates racking up backroom votes at a rate astoundingly disproportionate to the rest of the state.
After the 2017 citywide election, The Dispatch did an in-depth look at the local use of absentee ballots. Columbus voters cast 1,069 absentee ballots. The most we could find cast in a similar-size city were 402 in Meridian (about 50% larger than Columbus). There were only 194 cast in Starkville's election.
Moreover, the impact was pretty clear. One incumbent, Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens, garnered almost exactly the same number of absentee votes as machine votes (180 machine and 178 absentee) en route to re-election. In Ward 4, Marty Turner lost the run-off election to Fred Jackson, but beat Jackson by a 111-23 margin in absentees during the primary three weeks prior.
Jackson has since vacated his Ward 4 seat, and the campaigns of six candidates vying to replace him in an Aug. 20 special election are in full swing.
But District 5 Lowndes County Supervisor Leroy Brooks -- who is no stranger to absentee ballots himself -- is calling for an Attorney General's office investigation into the race, since 73 voters in that ward have already asked for absentee ballots.
Speaking to The Dispatch, one candidate said she's actually been present when voters requested absentee ballots from her campaign volunteers. Wonder who those people voted for?
Right now, at-home absentee voting is perfectly legal, and if anything improper takes place it's hard to prove or regulate.
So we'll see Brooks' call for an investigation and raise him one better. The Legislature needs to change the law to close this loophole through which elderly and disabled citizens are being exploited.
One way to knock it back is implementing no-excuse early voting. Now, you must be 65 or older, claim you'll be out-of-town on election day or that you're disabled, and you can vote absentee in-person or by mail. Allowing people to vote by machine at a centralized location for two to three weeks before and election would significantly cut down on the need for absentees, save for military personnel deployed overseas.
Otherwise, opportunist candidates will keep stuffing ballot boxes with ill-gotten gain, and the results of our city elections will continue to be, at best, ethically ambiguous.
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