Poll observer law misinterpretation stirs controversy in Jasper County

This document, showing a poll observer statute, has been circulating among Jasper County voters. However, the election commission chairman says it is being interpreted incorrectly.

Jasper County voters will elect a new state senator and school board in just weeks, but there’s already been some controversy surrounding the upcoming September election. Some voters reached out to NEWS 3 with questions, after receiving a document they interpreted to ban poll observers from the absentee precinct. NEWS 3 investigated the statute, and took questions to the Jasper County Election Commission. Chairman Joe Arzillo says there will be poll observers allowed at the absentee precinct, the election and registration office in Ridgeland.

Poll observers are people who watch over what goes on at the polls, as others vote. Many people consider it a vital role for democracy, as volunteers monitor procedures like I.D. checks, and ensuring no one person casts more than one ballot, for example. Some past observers read a document they were sent by the election commission, which states within the law, “Poll watchers are for Election Day only(7-13-860),” and “the level of oversight allowed a watcher cannot be afforded to the public at the absentee precinct.” Some interpreted this message to mean there will be no poll observing over absentee ballot casting. Arzillo wants to set the record straight, however, telling NEWS 3 this is not so.

Senate District 45 candidate William Bowman has also been contacted by concerned voters. He did some research to also find that poll observers are allowed in the absentee ballot casting.

“[Others] interpreted the letter to mean that they could not have, or it was going to be difficult for them to have poll watchers or poll observers at that polling place,” Bowman says.

Bowman believes the observers are a vital part of operating a polling place, “to generally make sure that the process goes fair for each candidate,” he says. “It evens the playing field just a little bit more, to make sure that everything is done in accordance with the law.”

He says the statute circulating among Jasper County voters is confusing, but it does not take away transparency from the polls.

“When the voter actually goes into the election office 30 days prior to actually vote on a machine, that process of observing that voter is just like any other polling place,” he says.

Although there will be observers allowed, Arzillo says it will be difficult to accommodate more than two or three at a time, since the office is small. Observers are not to be within earshot of the voters, or see any ballots cast.

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