Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel is projecting confidence about his campaign’s review of ballots cast in a runoff election he narrowly lost to incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran Tuesday ahead of a planned legal challenge to the election results.
The campaign is focusing on any ballots cast by individuals who voted in the Democratic primary on June 3, who under Mississippi’s election rules, were not allowed to vote in the Republican primary runoff three weeks later.
McDaniel claimed in an interview on Fox News late Thursday that his campaign had identified over 1,000 such votes in Hinds County, which includes a large African American population and helped provide Cochran a major increase in votes compared to the June 3 election. In Mississippi, voting is largely polarized along racial lines, with whites voting for Republicans and blacks for Democrats.
But McDaniel faces a daunting road ahead. Several national groups who helped fund his challenge to Cochran have signaled the election is over, referring to the result in past tense, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), an icon on the right who stayed neutral during the primary, said, “I look forward to working with Thad.”
And in an illustration of the chaotic ballot review behind the scenes, Mississippi Tea Party groups scheduled, canceled, rescheduled, and re-canceled a press conference about the election results Thursday.
Pushing back against McDaniel’s claim, Pete Perry, a Cochran ally who serves as the Hinds County GOP chair, released an extensive statement arguing that many of the allegedly illegitimate votes are actually due to clerical errors and saying poll workers there were trained specifically to check whether voters had cast ballots in the Democratic primary.
To challenge the results, McDaniel’s campaign is trying to identify more illegitimate votes than Cochran’s 6,700-vote margin of victory. Election integrity groups like True the Vote and others are helping search the poll books at courthouses, and conservative leaders are pressuring the chairman of the Mississippi GOP to work with McDaniel to verify the election results.
The early counts of ballots that the McDaniel campaign considers problematic have come from reviewing voter rolls in about half of the precincts in Hinds County, someone familiar with the situation said.
Tea Party groups say they are enraged about how Cochran won the election and point to incendiary robocalls and mailers that suggested McDaniel and the Tea Party are racist, the underlying dynamic of utilizing Democratic votes to win a Republican primary, and potential violations of election rules.
Gregg Phillips, a longtime Mississippi GOP operative who was a top aide to former conservative GOP Gov. Kirk Fordice, told Breitbart News, “We watched them steal this election.”
Catherine Engelbrecht, head of True the Vote, added that “America as we know it ends” if voter fraud is allowed to determine election outcomes.
“I think that the sanctity of the vote was, by all appearance, violated,” Engelbrecht said in a phone interview. “Absolutely, I think, without question, the confidence of the voter not only in Mississippi but nationally has been undermined as we have seen this play out.” She added, “This is not who we are as Americans. Let the best man win, but let it be a fair fight. Somehow we’ve lost sight of that. It’s an outrage.”
Perry counters by saying many of the alleged illegitimate votes aren’t from people who wrongly voted in the runoff, but only appear to have done so. In his statement, he explained further, referring to one specific precinct:
This is nothing more than an instance where a poll worker started marking an individual’s vote in the June 3rd column, rather than in the June 24th column. At some point the worker realized his or her mistake and corrected it – crossing out the ‘voted’ notation in the June 3rd column and moving it to its proper place. That is the correct procedure for the managers – but the McDaniel campaign is claiming that this is an example of illegal votes.
“We know there are errors that happened that day, and the poll workers out there corrected it,” Perry said. “And they’re just trying to make up numbers to make it look a lot better than it is.”
Perry pointed to one instance where a precinct that supposedly included 192 votes from people who had voted in the June 3 Democratic primary, but according to the certified election results, only 37 people had voted in the Democratic primary on June 3 for that precinct.
“Instead of crying fraud or illegality or corruption – rhetoric that is designated to inflame passions – it would be helpful if those making wild accusations would consider other possibilities,” Perry added.
During the campaign, campaign funds from a super PAC supporting Cochran were routed through a company controlled by Perry to help pay for get-out-the-vote efforts that targeted Democrats.
Claude McInnis–the election coordinator for the Hinds County Democratic Party Executive Committee–estimated that after their review, McDaniel’s team will find about 3,000 total Democrats who voted in the June 3 Democratic primary and again in the GOP runoff on June 24 in his county.
“I’m going to guess 3,000,” McInnis said in a phone interview with Breitbart News. “It may be more, but I only have access to the Democratic votes, so that’s what I’m guessing the difference may be.”
Statewide, state Democratic Chairman Rickey Cole told Breitbart News, “It is very conceivable–it is highly conceivable” that McDaniel and his team “will find a number of irregularities that will reach 6,700 or greater.”
“You can’t predict these kinds of things,” Cole said when asked if he thinks a challenge from McDaniel would be successful, but “if I were in a race this close, I’d be doing the same thing.”
Cole said if McDaniel finds at least 6,700 Democrats who voted in the Democrat primary three weeks ago and the GOP runoff on Tuesday, a Mississippi court could actually demand a new election.
“You don’t have to prove who they voted for,” Cole said. “You just have to prove there were that many ineligible ballots. That puts the intent of the voting public in doubt, and that’s the path by which a court would order a new election.”
Besides any Democrats who voted in both the June 3 Democratic primary and the June 24 Republican runoff, McDaniel’s campaign is also reviewing absentee ballots.
According to data compiled by GOP operative Phillips, there was a significant spike in absentee ballots for the runoff over the primary. Between both the Democratic and Republican primaries on June 3, there were a total of 18,036 absentee ballots cast. In the runoff on June 24–between the statewide GOP runoff and the low-profile third congressional district Democrat runoff–there were 19,144 absentee ballots cast.
“When you look at what causes voting behaviors to radically change, in the absence of a demographic shift, in the absence of any single point of departure, in three weeks what could cause such a shift?” Engelbrecht asked.
“Here’s the things that we know: We know that mail-in absentee ballots were not subject to Mississippi’s new voter identification regulations,” Engelbrecht stated, adding:
We know that, historically speaking, in the last several years, there have been numerous people jailed for absentee ballot harvesting and falsification of identities using absentee ballots. And we know of the Breitbart News video showing that absentees were again being harvested in the runoff and primary. I would go so far as to say when I tried to go and look at the absentee ballot applications this past week at two separate courthouses, I was not allowed to look at them.
Right now, Engelbrecht says, election officials and state GOP officials are not being forthcoming with absentee ballot applications. Her group has publicly called on Mississippi GOP Chairman Joe Nosef to refrain from certifying Tuesday’s runoff election until all the absentee ballots and applications are verified. Nosef hasn’t responded to a request from Breitbart News about whether he’ll comply with the request to verify those votes before certifying the election. He also has not responded to a request about a call from McDaniel to intervene and order state party officials across Mississippi to cooperate with McDaniel’s allies who seek to verify the election’s outcome.
A 2006 study by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which interviewed several left of center, right of center, and nonpartisan election integrity experts nationwide, found that the absentee ballot process “is subject to the greatest proportion of fraudulent acts” over any other part of the election process in America.
Engelbrecht points to Mississippi law, which has fairly strict absentee ballot eligibility rules, as a reason why many of the absentee ballots could be thrown out, and she notes there’s plenty of other reasons why they could be discarded upon further review.
“There are so many pieces that would potentially invalidate many of these absentee ballots, for instance, if the application is not properly filled out, if the notary is not a proper and duly designated notary–which we’ve seen historically happen in Mississippi as it relates to absentee ballot harvesting,” Engelbrecht said. “Did they have somebody witness it? Did the signatures inside and outside the ballot envelopes match? All of these things need to be checked, and in a race this close, every vote matters.” She then asserted, “You don’t need a whole lot of election fraud; you just need a little bit in the right places to swing an election.”
The evidence is going to take McDaniel and his allies some time to compile, as nothing in Mississippi is handled electronically; it’s all done by handwritten paperwork.
Mississippi has seen new elections called before; a judge called for one in the Hattiesburg mayoral race just last year, after similar actions to what McDaniel’s campaign is alleging occurred there. But for a U.S. Senate primary–and most likely a U.S. Senate seat, as the Republican nominee is expected to win in November–a judge ordering a new election because of widespread voter fraud would cause a political firestorm.
To make matters even more interesting, Democrats in Hinds County are accusing Cochran’s Hinds County Republicans of illegal activity.
In an interview with Breitbart News on Thursday, McInnis–the Hinds County Democrats’ top official–said that Perry asked Democrats to help him “break the law” by working together to accept Democratic voters who voted in the June 3 Democratic primary and in Tuesday’s GOP runoff.
Charging that Perry “has never ran a legal election in this state” because “he was never qualified by the Secretary of State’s office,” McInnis alleged that Perry asked him and county Democrats not to share records of who voted in each primary on June 3. The practice–called “switching the books”–is where, heading into a runoff, Democrats and Republicans swap poll books that list which voters voted in the respective parties’ recent primaries.
To start a primary, since Mississippi doesn’t technically have party registration, Democrats and Republicans each begin with their own lists of all registered voters. As voters cast ballots, poll workers write “VOTED” next to the names of people who vote in their primaries. If the process heads to a runoff in either or both parties’ primaries, the Democrats switch their books with Republicans and vice versa so poll workers in the runoffs can ensure nobody who voted in the Democratic primary votes in the GOP runoff and vice versa.
“The Democrats get the Republican book and the Republicans get the Democrat book to protect against crossover voting,” McInnis said. “In Mississippi and a lot of other states, if you voted in the Republican primary, you must only vote in the Republican runoff; you can’t switch.”
McInnis alleged in an interview with Breitbart News that Connie Cochran, Sen. Cochran’s sister-in-law and the Perry and Hinds County election commissioner, asked local Democrats not to switch the poll books.
“In the state of Mississippi, you have to take steps to prevent crossover voting,” McInnis said. “If you voted Democrat in the Democratic primary, you can’t vote in the Republican runoff. The way we protect that is we switch the poll books. Pete Perry and Connie Cochran, who’s the chair of the election commission, called us and asked us not to switch the books–which is a clear violation of the law.”
McInnis told Breitbart News he personally witnessed at least one Hinds County precinct–Precinct 16–where the books had not been switched during the runoff day. “I went out to a precinct to make sure the laws were being followed, and I got there at about 4 o’clock p.m.,” McInnis said. “They had not switched the books, under the influence of the young Republican and Democratic workers there. I demanded that they switch these books immediately. The Democratic poll manager there switched the books at 4 o’clock that evening.”
McInnis said he thinks Perry engaged in this practice throughout the entire county, but he can’t be sure because Democrats were only allowed inside 15 of the county’s 109 precincts on election day. Two Democrat candidates for the U.S. House third congressional district in Mississippi headed to a runoff, and while Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) represents most of Hinds County, the third congressional district has 15 precincts inside Hinds County.
“I think this was county-wide, but we only had 15 precincts because we only had a small runoff in a very small part of the county; we only had 15 precincts in the eastern part of the county,” McInnis said. “The rest of the county had only the Republican runoff, so we had no authority to go to Republican polling places and do anything about it. But in the places we could, we did–because we did not want to be accused of anything with the Republican Party.”
When asked how Perry could have succeeded in not switching the books–since he and other Democrats refused to cooperate with his request on the grounds that they believed it was illegal–McInnis replied that he worked with Sen. Cochran’s sister-in-law–the election commissioner in Hinds County–to get the job done. “Connie Cochran is the election commissioner,” McInnis said.
“I can’t tell you if he did this at all the precincts, but I can tell you at the precincts I went to, they didn’t switch the books. I know one woman at one precinct where she had voted in the Democratic primary, but she also was allowed to vote in the Republican runoff. It happened at more than one precinct.”
McInnis and his fellow Hinds County Democratic Executive Committee member, Chairwoman Jacqueline Amos-Norris, provided Breitbart News with email evidence that Perry and Connie Cochran were trying to not “switch the books” on runoff day. “Connie, unless I send you something in writing, it does not exist,” Norris wrote to Connie Cochran in the email dated June 18, six days before the runoff. “Claude informed me of what Pete said to you about the Poll Books and that’s not true and not legal. If I need to come down, please let me know.”
What supposedly happened, according to McInnis and Norris, is that Perry told Connie Cochran that McInnis agreed to not switch the books. McInnis and Norris both said that isn’t and wasn’t true, which was why Norris sent that email to Connie Cochran to inform her that it was not true.
“She stated that she told him it wasn’t going to happen, and that was the end of it,” Norris told Breitbart News.
Before this email exchange and this interview with McInnis was published, Perry told local news outlet MS News Now that he did switch the books. “It’s the easiest way for a poll worker to be able to look and see,” explained Perry. “Instead of printing out a list that you’ve got to work from the list, when I look up your name I can look right there and tell if you voted in the Democratic primary.”
In his statement, Perry reiterated that Hinds County had switched the poll books:
To help prevent mistakes, the Republican and Democrat parties switch the poll books for each precinct for a run-off. Since we don’t register by political party in Mississippi, the poll books list all voters. The theory of switching the poll books is that if a Republican poll worker is using the book that was used by the Democrats in the first election, then when a voter comes to vote in the Republican run-off, the poll worker can quickly see if the voter’s name is checked as having voted in the first Democrat primary.
Cole, the state Democrats’ chairman, said it really wasn’t the end of it because Perry somehow managed not to switch the books in several precincts across the county. “We have no way of knowing how many it happened at because we didn’t have the authority to go into most of the precincts in Hinds County,” Cole said, noting that because of the fact that the third congressional district was happening in just 15 Hinds County precincts, the Democrats only saw what happened there.
Cole also said that he thinks not switching the books could “absolutely” have happened in scores of Mississippi’s 82 counties and more than 1,800 precincts. “This process had to be honored in every precinct in Mississippi, all more than 1,800 precincts”:
If I were doing the inquiry into this election, I would want to compare the June 3 Democratic poll books in every precinct with the June 24 Republican poll books in every precinct. That’s the only way to know whether there was any crossover or not. None of this is done electronically. This is all on paper. We don’t have electronic poll books yet in any county in Mississippi. So if any Republican runoff poll workers either didn’t have the Democratic poll books from June 3, or didn’t use the Democratic poll books from June 3, there would have been no way for them to have known whether a voter voted in the first Democratic primary or not.
McInnis also alleged that Perry personally illicitly decided which absentee ballots in Hinds County would be allowed and which ones would not: “This is a thing that’s supposed to happen at the precincts. But we watched him decide which absentees would be voted and which absentees were not going to be voted. He also decided which affidavits would be voted and which ones would not. We watched him do that. We watched them break the law.”
According to Phillips’ analysis of absentee ballots, 861 votes were cast by absentee ballot on June 24 in Hinds County–most of which were probably in the GOP runoff, though some may have been from the Democratic runoff of the third congressional district nomination, since 15 of Hinds’ 109 precincts are in that district.
Cole said, “There’s something very wrong” if the proper process wasn’t followed everywhere statewide, something that could–coupled with the questioning of thousands of ballots already–have drastic consequences.
“If they find enough precincts where this process wasn’t followed–and they go through this methodical process and find thousands of instances where June 3 Democrats were voting in the June 24 Republican runoff–then I think an appeal should be filed with the Republican Executive Committee on those grounds,” Cole said. “Then the relief would have to be the ordering of a new election.”
Engelbrecht agrees, and thinks there should be an investigation into the GOP’s June 3 primary, too–because McDaniel may have actually won that outright, meaning there was no need for a runoff, she said, if this level of irregularity happened then.
“I think at this point, there are too many questions left unanswered and too many actions that have openly subverted process and disregarded election law,” Engelbrecht stated. “I think that it is entirely possible when it is all said and done and the dust settles, we could see thousands of ballots being called into question, not only in the runoff, but I hope this also extends back into the primary.” She added, “Who knows who really won that primary? Based on the behavior that all of America just saw so plainly in the runoff, I think the bigger question may become who really won that primary?”