The Muscogee elections board decided this afternoon to reject only three of 22 absentee ballots that were challenged after the daughter of a local nursing home resident reported her mother’s runoff ballot had not been marked the way the elderly woman wanted.
The ballots being challenged had been mailed to the Hilyer Drive home of Vickie Stafford, who told the board she was just trying to help the residents of the Hamilton House nursing home vote in a historic election.
Stafford is not a nursing home employee, but her mother, Clara Roundtree, 73, is a resident there. Stafford said she is a deputy voter registrar who arranged a registration drive at the healthcare facility with the permission of the activity director there. She helped residents register and then brought the ballots there from her home to assist those voters, she said.
She was represented Friday by attorney Dorothy Williams, who said Stafford primarily was helping elderly African-Americans who wanted to vote for Barack Obama, whose victory Nov. 4 is to make him the first black U.S. president.
“There was no coercion. There was no undue influence,” Williams said.
Chris Samra, an investigator with the district attorney’s office, had recommended the board consider rejecting up to eight of the ballots being challenged, some because the nursing home residents he questioned could not recall voting. Among other ballot issues were an incorrect date of birth and signatures that didn’t match.
“It seemed to me that for the most part, most of the ballots were filled out correctly,” Samra told the board.
After privately opening and examining each ballot, the board rejected two because of mismatched signatures and one because the voter’s date of birth was incorrect.
Elections workers Tuesday decided to challenge all the ballots with which Stafford had assisted voters after Ruth Turner complained that Stafford twice tried to get her mother, Roxie Taylor, to sign a ballot bearing votes for Democrats. Turner said he mother votes Republican. Samra said Taylor also told him that she always votes Republican. Stafford said Taylor had told her she wanted to vote for Democrats. Taylor is in her 90s. She is the grandmother of Debra Coker, the wife of Bert Coker, who ran for Columbus Council’s at-large post this year. Coker earlier this week reported that his mother-in-law twice caught Stafford in Taylor’s room at Hamilton House. He clarified Friday that it was in the facility’s cafeteria that Turner twice confronted Stafford about Taylor’s absentee ballots.
Turner said Stafford had marked her mother’s ballot for Democrats during the Nov. 4 general election and for Tuesday’s runoff. Because Turner took both ballots away, neither was cast in either election.
Samra said memory problems made investigating the matter difficult. Stafford’s mother could not recall who helped her vote or how she voted, he said.
The activity director with whom Stafford arranged a voter registration drive no longer is employed by Hamilton House. Samra said the facility’s policy on absentee ballots is that they are to be mailed to the nursing home, after which the social services director is to contact residents’ families to come help their relatives vote.
City Attorney Clifton Fay said the elections board cannot re-examine any ballots with which Stafford assisted voters in the Nov. 4 election, for which the results already have been certified.