Although the candidates and voters get all of the attention on election night, it’s the people behind-the-scenes who ensure the democratic process is clicking along.
Itawamba County election commissioners are making preparations for the upcoming primary elections. The group works alongside Itawamba County Circuit Clerk Carol Gates to ensure the election process runs fairly and smoothly.
The local election commission has five members, one representing each district in the county. The commission’s current makeup includes John Coggin from 1st District; Charles Palmer from 2nd District; Matt Hudson from 3rd District; Tommy Gholston from 4th District; and Linda Crane from 5th District. Gholston also serves as the commission chairperson.
As the Aug. 6 primaries draw near, the group’s workload grows heavier. There are countless behind-the-scenes minutiae to to deal with before election night.
On Monday, for instance, the quintet was holed up in a small room inside the county courthouse (the cramped space, with a table at its center and walls lined with the county’s touch-screen voting machines, is unceremoniously referred to as the “election room”) tediously changing the tiny button batteries in each of the county’s credit card-sized voter card scanners. This was just the latest in a long line of tasks the group will need to finish in the next few weeks.
“We will be spending several days purging voting rolls, training election workers and running logistic and analysis testing on voting machines,” Gholston said. “We’ll also be getting poll workers lined up.”
As it stands, Gholston says one of the most difficult part of the commission’s job is finding people to work the polls. It’s an important position, albeit one that doesn’t pay much ($75) and requires long hours (at least 12 hours on election day).
“The primary election will be tough,” Gholston said. “Each precinct will need five poll workers, two each for both Democrat and Republican parties, as well as a bailiff.”
Because poll workers have to stick around the voting precincts throughout election day, the pool of candidates is usually limited.
“We generally use retired people since younger voters are at their jobs, but we’ve had a difficult time finding those in recent elections,” Gholston said.
Before being considered as an election worker, individuals must be registered voters of the county in which they serve. Though it is not required, they should be registered in the precinct they are serving.
According to Miss. Code Ann. Section 23-15-240, juniors and seniors in high school are permitted to be “poll worker interns.” The law is designed to allow teenagers to become more acquainted with their community and the officials serving them.
Poll workers are paid for time spent for training and as well as working the polls. From among the poll workers in each precinct, a poll manager and bailiff are assigned with specific duties and responsibilities throughout the election.
The primary responsibility of poll managers is to ensure the election is conducted fairly and within the limits of the law. On the day before the election, they must obtain the box(es) for his/her polling place, along with poll books, tally sheets and other supplies necessary to hold the election. They also are held accountable for safeguarding all of the election materials.
On election day, poll managers make certain each person casting a ballot has acceptable photo identification and that it fairly depicts the voter. They also verify the name on the presented identification is substantially similar to the voter’s name as it appears in the poll book.
Poll managers also ensure qualified voters are permitted to only vote once.
Prior to opening the polls at 7 a.m. on election day, it’s the bailiff’s responsibility to ensure their precinct’s ballot boxes have not been tampered with by verifying the original seal.
They are under the same responsibilities as managers when it come to elections guidelines, such as following the letter of the law and verifying proper identification. They also carry out a number of specific statutory duties such as keeping order.
Preventing campaigning and/or the distribution of campaign materials within 150 feet of the entrance of the polling place falls under their authority. T-shirts, buttons, stickers and the like featuring candidates’ names are prohibited and are reason enough for a bailiff to ask the voter to leave the premises.
Poll watchers (individuals who are stationed at precincts by candidates to ensure proper voting guidelines are followed) are also monitored by bailiffs. Checking credentials and monitor their actions according to the statues set in Miss. Code Ann. 23-15-245 also are the bailiffs obligation.
The bailiff also keeps the polling place clear of loiterers. If anyone becomes unruly or abusive, the bailiff has the authority to ask them to leave.
When voting closes at 7 p.m., the bailiff will announce the closing of the polls only allowing those already in line to vote.
There are currently 28 voting precincts within Itawamba County. That’s 140 poll workers needed for the upcoming August 6 primary election. The same will be needed in the runoff set for August 20.
According to Gholston, the local election commission is still filling those positions. They likely will be right up to election day.
“The American Legion polling place is the toughest one to find workers,” Gholston said. “It’s the largest in the county and always the toughest to fill.”
Gholston reiterated the shortage of poll workers across the county is becoming more common.
In 2016, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission found that two-thirds of jurisdictions had a hard time recruiting enough poll workers for election day.
Poll workers perform a valuable community service by assisting their fellow citizens as they cast their ballots on election day. They are essential to ensuring that elections are held accurately and fairly throughout the election process.
Voters interested in being a poll worker can call Itawamba County Circuit Clerk Carol Gates’ office at 662-862-3511.