Errors leave felons on voter rolls

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 4, 2001

Clerical errors in Adams County Circuit Clerk’s Office records dating back to 1997 may have allowed convicted felons to vote and serve as jurors.

While purging the voter rolls last week for the upcoming flag election, Circuit Clerk M.L. &uot;Binkey&uot; Vines said he and his staff noticed a large number of felony cases – more than 600 – listed as being &uot;dismissed,&uot; meaning the charges against the individual had been dropped.

&uot;That was our clue that something was not right here,&uot; Vines said.

After cross-referencing the cases with court records, Vines and Deputy Clerk Marge Alexander found the cases had actually been closed, not dismissed – a big difference when it comes to voter and jury service rights.

The State of Mississippi has a list of &uot;disinfranchising crimes,&uot; among them arson, bigamy, bribery, felony bad check writing, rape and timber larceny.

If convicted of one of these felonies, the individual loses the right to vote and to serve on a jury of his or her peers.

Because of the clerical errors, persons convicted of disinfranchising crimes may have been allowed to vote and serve as jurors in Adams County for the past several years, Vines said.

Of the few hundred cases Vines said he and his staff have researched so far, all those listed as dismissed have in fact proven to be closed cases, meaning the individual should have been removed from the rolls.

Vines said he and his staff are working overtime and on Saturdays to correct the voter rolls in time for the flag election, set for April 17.

&uot;You’re talking about cleaning up eight years’ worth of work in less than half a month’s time,&uot; Vines said.

Though he may never know for certain, Vines said deputy clerks under the former administration may have incorrectly listed closed cases as being dismissed when the new computerized record system was installed in 1997.

The problem was not detected while reviewing the rolls prior to the fall presidential election because a full print-out was not requested, he said.

The circuit clerk’s office records information for the Adams County Election Commission, which in turn provides the circuit clerk’s office with voter lists prior to elections and at the close of court terms.

&uot;The election commission did not in any way fail to do their job,&uot; Vines said. &uot;They can only work with the information that’s given to them.&uot;

District 2 Election Commissioner Larry Gardner, who served as a deputy clerk in Adams County from 1994 to 1999, said the errors probably had more to do with the rapidly changing technology than anything else.

Within a matter of 10 years, the circuit clerk’s office switched and upgraded computer program systems several times, and each new program required more historical information about an individual.

Gardner said the earliest systems only allowed space for an individual’s name and charge. So when busy clerks who were unfamiliar with the newer programs saw empty spaces on the screen, they may have filled them in with incorrect information.

Also, in order to get an older case out of the list of active files, clerks may have filled in blank data fields without looking back at the actual files, Gardner said.

&uot;Some of these people were not doing their job and it’s just now starting to show up,&uot; he said.

Now that the problem has been discovered, Gardner said he feels confident Vines and his staff will work diligently to correct it.

&uot;It needs to be cleared up,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s going to take some time, but this historical data needs to be cleaned up.&uot;

Former Circuit Clerk Fred Ferguson said he was unaware the problem was going on under his administration, but he is certain any errors were unintentional.

&uot;Nobody was trying to do anything undercover,&uot; Ferguson said. &uot;If anything was wrong, it wasn’t the people doing it. It was that the technology needed to be updated.&uot;

Vines said he hopes circuit clerks in other counties will take notice of the incident and investigate their own voter rolls more closely.