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Hinds County ballot shortages causes legal mess on Election Day

Hinds County problems in Mississippi’s statewide general election on Tuesday caused what, in technical legal terms, is known as a mess.

Numerous precincts in Hinds County reportedly ran out of ballots, or of the proper ballots, leaving some voters waiting in line for hours and causing others to give up and go home. This prompted legal filings from multiple groups before normal poll closing time at 7 p.m., and prompted a circuit court judge to order all Hinds County polls stay open until 8 p.m. to allow more people to vote.

But another special judge, appointed by the Mississippi Supreme Court, ruled that people who were in line by 7 p.m. could still vote, but otherwise polls would close at 7 p.m. This is what the law already says voting precincts are supposed to do, let people in line by the deadline vote.

So, for those who returned to or showed up at polls after 7 p.m. — who hadn’t been already standing in line — will their votes count? That answer is unclear, and would probably have to be hashed out by the courts.

READ MORE: Judge extends Hinds County precinct hours after numerous ballot problems

County leaders reported they ran out of ballots and even of printer toner to print more late Tuesday.

Secretary of State Michael Watson said counties are, by statute, supposed to have on hand at least enough ballots to cover 60% of its registered voters.

“That doesn’t mean they can’t have more, but that’s the minimum,” Watson said. “The counties then decide how they are going to disperse the ballots as needed.”

One problem Hinds ran into, Watson said, was that it has many new precinct lines and split precincts from 2020 redistricting, which required many precincts to have different ballots for people voting in the same precincts.

“They might have 10 people at the precinct who get one ballot style, and then 50 who get another ballot,” Watson said. “I think in some cases, this got flipped, and they ended up with 10 of one type when they needed 50. We were getting calls throughout the day about problems in Hinds, and we then learned there were several lawsuits being prepared.”

The Mississippi Democratic Party asked the Hinds County Chancery Court for an emergency order, which was granted by Chancellor Dewayne Thomas, extending voting for one hour, until 8 p.m., in all county precincts.

But in a separate case filed by Mississippi Votes, a Jackson nonprofit, in Hinds Circuit Court, the state Supreme Court appointed a special judge, former Supreme Court Judge Jess Dickinson, to hear the matter. Dickinson issued an order repeating existing state law: that people who were in line when the polls closed at 7 p.m. could vote if they remained in line.

State statute appears to give the state’s high court the task of appointing judges to hear election-day disputes. It says, “The Supreme Court shall shall make judges available to hear disputes in the county in which the disputes occur, but not judge shall hear disputes in the district, subdistrict or county in which he was elected nor shall any judge hear any dispute in which any potential conflict may arise. Each judge shall be fair and impartial and shall be assigned on that basis.”

Watson said counties run their own elections.

“We have the authority to advise them what the law is, but not to tell them what to do,” Watson said.

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