Secretary of State Eric Clark has embarked on a massive effort to clean up Mississippi's election process by creating a statewide computerized voter roll.
A new database will replace the assortment of computer programs used in Mississippi's 82 counties. Clark said the new system will mean less controversy in close political races.
"Some elections are very close, and the cleaner your elections are, the more likely they are to reflect the will of the voters,'' Clark said.
The effort actually began in 1997 when Clark's office tried to create a statewide system and discovered something disquieting - of the state's 1.7 million registered voters, there were 140,000 "unqualified'' names on the roll.
The unqualified names included dead people and criminals who had lost the right to vote. There were duplications or people who had registered in one county, moved to another county and registered again. Some people had been registered five times.
These inaccurate voter roles increased the potential for fraud since criminals could seek absentee ballots for registered voters who are no longer eligible to vote. Others had taken advantage of registered voters who did not vote by sending in multiple absentee ballots in their names.
Some counties even had more registered voters than they had people of voting age, according to Clark's office.
Clark realized the task would be more complicated than expected because counties were using different systems to track registered voters. The systems worked fine in isolation, but not in unison. Rather than just linking the counties together, the state needed to install new software statewide, and the project was put on hold.
"It's not effective if you can't link every county together to share the information,'' Clark said.
When the Florida presidential election fiasco made headlines in 2000, the issue returned with urgency. Clark created a task force to study problems with the presidential election and how they might be plaguing Mississippi.
The task force was formed shortly after, but not as a result of William Ray Boswell's close victory in a Lauderdale County supervisor's race. He won by four votes in November 1999 and was later charged with nine counts of voter fraud.
Prosecutors charged he obtained the voter registrations of nine people in one district when the voters lived in another district. The incumbent supervisor he defeated said some people who voted absentee didn't live in the precinct.
Boswell's trial ended in a hung jury, and the state attorney general's office said it would not retry the case. Lee Martin, the special attorney general who prosecuted the case, said his office continues to receive complaints about absentee voting.
Clark's database is "absolutely'' needed in Mississippi, he said.