By: Sara Pagones

While St. Tammany Parish voters and candidates were anxiously watching the returns on election night a week ago to see whether the still-missing results of early and absentee voting would change the outcome of some hotly contested political races, St. Tammany Clerk of Court Melissa Henry and other members of the parish’s Board of Election Supervisors were trying to account for a nine-vote discrepancy in the count of mailed-in paper ballots.

The result was that the clerk’s office wasn’t able to post the final results of the Oct. 12 election until about 11 p.m.

Henry said she will ask the Legislature to revise state law so that clerks can release early voting totals when the polls close on election night and release the absentee vote totals once the results are counted and validated.

Currently, those tallies are reported together, and state law forbids reporting the much more numerous early voting totals to the Secretary of State’s Office until the mail-in ballots are validated, Henry said.

The Board of Election Supervisors includes the clerk of court, the registrar of voters, the chairs of both the Democratic and Republican parish executive committees and a governor’s appointee, Henry said.

Those five people are sequestered to tabulate the votes, and Henry said they went into lockdown about 1:30 p.m. Oct. 12. But by 7 p.m., they realized there was a nine-vote discrepancy in the count for the absentee ballots. At that point, they began a hand count, looked at the envelopes that contained the votes, and eventually decided all the paper ballots needed to be rescanned. That took until 11 p.m.

Sometimes paper ballots are not filled in properly, Henry said, and the scanners used to read them can’t read red ink, pencil or marks other than filled-in circles.

Intermittent reporting is not allowed during sequestration, she said.

The early and absentee vote counts are typically finished before 8 p.m., Henry said.

“When it comes to elections, we prioritize accuracy over speed,” she said, noting that there was something of a backlash over the late numbers from St. Tammany.

Henry said she has been in contact with the Secretary of State’s Office about pushing for a change in the state law and thinks that she’ll get support there. Some other parishes also had issues with scanners this month, she said.

She said St. Tammany Parish had a record number of people voting early for the Oct. 12 election, accounting for almost a third of the vote total, and all of those votes, made on machines, were verified before the polls closed.

The mail-in ballots accounted for less than 4% of the total, “and while equally important, should not have held up the release of early voting numbers,” Henry said.