You may have already heard at least some of the bizarre story about three "Tea Party" supporters of Mississippi's Republican U.S. Senate candidate Chris McDaniel who found themselves locked inside the Hinds County Courthouse around 2am on primary election night last Tuesday. McDaniel himself is now locked in a run-off for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate against six-term Senator Thad Cochran, after the nail-biter on Tuesday which left the two men reportedly about 1,400 votes apart out of more than 300,000 cast.
Ultimately, neither candidate received more than 50% of the vote, so they'll face each other again in a run-off for the GOP nomination on June 24. But the incident that left the three McDaniel supporters calling for help to let them out of the courthouse in the middle of the night after the last election official had locked the door and left almost three hours earlier is more than curious. It has many wondering what the hell the three were doing at the location where ballots are tallied and vote tabulators stored, in one of the last counties to come in with their results on the squeaker of an election night.
The details of the story, and why the three --- one a top campaign official for McDaniel (and a former Presidential campaign staffer for Newt Gingrich) --- were there at all, remain murky. On Wednesday, the Hinds County Sheriff's office said that there were "conflicting stories from the three of them." But by Thursday evening, despite what a Sheriff's spokesman described as a "fabrication" from the President of the Central Mississippi Tea Party who contacted a fellow Hinds County Republican executive committee member to seek his help in getting out of the courthouse, the county decided that she and the two men caught in the courthouse caper along with her broke no laws.
"Based on our findings and subsequent conclusion," the County Sheriff's office announced in a statement, "there is no reason to believe that the three individuals engaged in any criminal activity nor do we believe any laws were broken."
But with one of the original headlines about the story focused on the fact that the three had been locked in the empty courthouse "with ballots on Election Night," there remain a number of questions about what actually happened, despite initial reportage indicating that "ballots had been secured prior to the intrusion" and a subsequent report noting that "some precinct information wasn't sealed."
So, The BRAD BLOG contacted the Hinds County Election Commissioners to get more information on the exact type of voting system used there, which aspects of it might have been vulnerable to the three McDaniel supporters alone inside the courthouse, and what type of information was left unsealed there on election night.
We received detail answers to our questions from one of the five Hinds County Election Commissioners --- the one who would, perhaps, have the most reason to be suspicious of the trio of McDaniel supporters...
Election Commissioner Connie Cochran, sister-in-law to McDaniel's opponent, incumbent Senator Cochran, explained that last year, Hinds County replaced its old, 100% unverifiable touch-screen voting system (the AVS WINVote) with a precinct-based, optical-scanned paper-ballot system (the notoriously-defective ES&S DS200).
Like touch-screen voting systems, precinct-based optical-scan systems generally use a memory card that tallies votes on the computer scanner system at each precinct, before those memory cards are then transported back to election headquarters and fed into a central tabulator computer at the end of the night to total up all the votes from all of the different precincts.
Cochran confirmed that that's essentially how the system works in Hinds, and that the paper ballots cast on election day, along with the vulnerable memory cards (which she calls "media sticks"), were stored away securely before she locked up the building when everyone left at 11:30pm Tuesday night.
"All media sticks used with the scanners, along with all ballots cast on election day were sealed in the Circuit Clerk's office or vault," she explained.
In Hinds, she said, "most of the absentee ballots were tallied at the precincts, some were not." There were also a number of provisional ballots cast --- they call them "affidavit ballots" in MS --- that, she said, were still being processed as of Thursday afternoon. "There are probably 200-250 affidavit ballots to be verified," she said at the time.
Cochran explained that there were approximately 725 paper absentee ballots received by the Circuit Clerk's office, but that "most of them should have been tallied and added into the vote totals Tuesday night" --- well before the three Cochran supporters were discovered to have entered and then found themselves locked in the building.
"All absentees and affidavit ballots were secured in the Circuit Clerk's office before we left Tuesday night," she says.
Cochran's account largely matches the one from Hinds County Circuit Clerk Barbara Dunn, as reported by the Clarion-Ledger on Thursday evening.
"It would be very hard for anyone to get into my vault," Dunn told the paper. "And I have an alarm system that is turned on that would make a loud sound if anyone opens the vault."
Cochran also confirmed the earlier report that some materials from election night were, indeed, left unsealed at the end of the night. "The supply bags were left in the hall of the courthouse," she said, later adding that they would have contained "Pens, pads, signage, blank ballots, extra affidavit envelopes, etc."
Blank ballots? Could those have been used by the three McDaniel supporters to replace absentee or provisional/affidavit ballots that had not yet been scanned by the end of election night?
"There is a ballot accounting form that is to be filled out by a person from each polling location. It has a slot for them to put the number of unused ballots. So, there are checks and balances for the ballots. The supply bags were not examined Tuesday night. But there is a record of how many were unused," Cochran told us via email late on Thursday.
We haven't yet heard back as to whether the Commission had confirmed that the number of blank ballots listed in the record of each precinct bag matched the number of blank ballots in those bags after the strange incident came to light on Wednesday.
So, with the voted ballots and memory sticks stored securely inside the Circuit Clerk's office and/or office vault, what about the central tabulator computer itself? Indeed, access to that computer is the simplest way to manipulate the results of an election --- one which uses either touch-screen voting or optically-scanned paper ballots --- in seconds.
Commissioner Cochran told The BRAD BLOG that the central tabulation computer "was returned to our office upon completion of results being entered and locked in our office (the Election Commission office)" on Tuesday night.
She added, after we'd specifically asked, that the central tabulation computer is not hooked into the courthouse computer network and/or the Internet "at this time."
While the race was extremely close statewide, McDaniel lost fairly handily to Cochran in Hinds County, 65.7% to 33.8% or 10,928 votes to 5,621. With just 1,500 votes separating the two candidates statewide, however, it wouldn't take many votes in a Cochran stronghold to put him over the 50% plus 1 threshold to avoid a run-off. Similarly, a few votes shaved off of Cochran's totals in the same county might have been enough to send McDaniel to the November contest without a run-off in June, and few might have noticed had Cochran won handily in Hinds by 4,000 instead of 5,000.
As of 11:16pm on Election Night, McDaniel's top staffer, Scott Brewster, made it clear that he understood the importance of the results in Hinds. "Going to come down to Hinds county," he posted to Facebook at the time. "We will win the night but might be runoff."
Brewster was among the three who had to be let out of the Hinds County Courthouse by a Sheriff Dept. officer at 3:45am on Wednesday. He was also reportedly among the first to have learned about the other bizarre incident in the bitter Cochran-McDaniel battle, the one involving a blogger who had broken into a nursing home to take photographs of Cochran's infirm wife before posting them online in an Internet hit video. The blogger and three other McDaniel supporters --- including both a member of the Central Mississippi Tea Party and McDaniel's former radio co-host --- were arrested on conspiracy charges in connection with that break-in. The McDaniel campaign has denied any involvement in the affair, and the incident didn't seem to hurt him, at least according to Tuesday's reported results.
The McDaniel campaign might, arguably, have had a motive to manipulate ballots or election results on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, but --- presuming the county election officials are correct in their assessments --- without direct access to the ballots themselves, the optical-scan tabulator memory cards or the central tabulator computer system, the hapless "Tea Party" trio would seemingly have had neither the means nor opportunity to do so.
What they were doing in the Hinds County Courthouse then --- all alone in the middle of the night after the primary election --- remains a Mississippi mystery.