Pike County sues Entergy over 'fried' voting machines

Workers use flashlights to run extension cords following a power outage to Pike County election headquarters in Magnolia during the counting of the presidential primary ballots in this March 8, 2016, photo. 

Pike County supervisors are suing Entergy and the administrator for their own insurer for more than a half-million dollars as the result of a short circuit that led to a power outage at election headquarters and the destruction of voting machines on the night of the 2016 primaries.

The county is seeking $513,036 from the utility and the Mississippi Association of Supervisors Insurance Trust through its third-party administrator, Phillips and Associates Inc.

According to the lawsuit filed in Pike County Circuit Court, the county’s election central building lost power on the night of the March 8, 2016, primary as election officials were tabulating voting results.

The outage was isolated to the election headquarters, requiring officials to operate on generator power and extension cords ran to nearby county buildings as they counted ballots by flashlight.

“The lights in the election central building suddenly went out and sparks began flying from surge suppressors and outlets all over the building,” according to the lawsuit, which represents one side of a legal argument. “At that point in time, the main breaker to the election central building was turned off, and a 911 call was made, with the Magnolia Fire Department responding and arriving on the scene quickly.”

An electrician checked the circuits, turned the power back on and determined an unsafe variance in the voltage throughout the building posed a fire hazard, so officials cut the power back off.

A county maintenance worker later determined that the problem originated at the power line connected to the building.

Entergy responded by sending a lineman to replace a 10-foot section of the wire, but the county maintains that wire “had little or no insulation.”

The county said Entergy’s negligence stems from its failure to properly maintain and inspect the wires or make sure they were properly insulated, and that the wires were connected to the building in a “dangerous condition.”

“If Defendant Entergy had exercised ordinary care, the injuries to the Plaintiff’s voting machines and property would not have occurred,” the lawsuit says.

County officials said voting machines and peripheral units sustained serious damage and “will most likely never function properly.”

“The equipment’s ability to operate and accurately read, tabulate and report votes have been compromised,” the lawsuit says. “The manufacturer has strongly recommended that Pike County not use the equipment in the upcoming election.”

Entergy officials said Tuesday that they are looking into the situation.

“We were served with the complaint on Oct. 12, and are investigating the issue,” Entergy spokeswoman Mara Hartmann said. “It appears that this is the first time we were provided information about the county’s claims concerning this matter.”

As for the insurer, the county says it filed a claim but has not yet received payment, even though the damage was covered.

County officials said the problem with the power line stemmed from it rubbing against tree branches just outside the building.

Election Commission chair Trudy Berger said about half of the voting machines were inside the building and plugged into outlets during the outage, resulting in their immediate damage. The other half were still being returned from voting precincts. However, she said the county experienced the damage in two phases, at first during the initial outage and then over time as bare power lines continued to rub against tree branches and feed the building with a faulty supply of electricity.

Berger said the county used what remaining machines it had to finish out the 2016 election year but later testing of the equipment revealed burned circuit boards, leading to a recommendation from state election officials to scrap all of the machines and file a claim.

“The boards were literally fried,” Berger said.

The county had no elections to conduct in 2017. In order to hold balloting for this year’s the midterm congressional elections, the county has been renting voting machines from Election Systems & Software of Jackson for $24,750. Berger said that unless the issue is resolved, the county will likely have to do the same for next year’s election cycle when county and state races are on the ballot.

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