CANTON, Miss. — In a town that calls itself the Hollywood of Mississippi, people say for years they've been hearing tales of dirty politics worthy of a movie script, like campaigns buying votes with cash or beer.
But it wasn't until the past few days when the former police chief, a former fire chief and some others were arrested on voter fraud charges that locals realized just how deep the problems might go.
"It's always been kind of fishy business dealing with elections in Canton, Mississippi," said 21-year-old resident Laselven Harris, who is African-American and worked in the 2017 city campaign for a white Republican who lost the race for mayor.
Six people were arrested Thursday and one was arrested Friday after a grand jury indicted them on a variety of election fraud charges. They face accusations of bribing voters, improperly helping people fill out absentee ballots, voting despite being convicted of disqualifying felonies, and voting even though they lived outside the city or voting district.
The indictments come at a time that a disputed North Carolina congressional race is bringing attention to alleged election misdeeds nationwide.
Among those arrested was Vicki McNeil, a former Canton police chief who now serves on the Board of Aldermen. She faces four counts of voter fraud. She is alleged to have illegally helped people cast absentee ballots when she was running for re-election. McNeil declined comment to reporters and was released on $4,000 bail.
A former Canton fire chief, Cary Johnson, was arrested Friday. He is accused of trying to influence a voter by promising beer, and of offering money to two others to sway their votes.
The heaviest charges are against 38-year-old Courtney Rainey, who is appointed to the city school board and is Canton's director of human and cultural needs. Rainey was indicted on 10 counts of voter fraud, two counts of conspiring to commit voter fraud, two counts of voting by an unqualified person, and one count of intimidating a witness.
The indictments allege Rainey paid four people for their votes in cash and one with a Walmart gift card. A lawyer for Rainey didn't immediately respond to a phone call and email seeking comment. Rainey is free on $15,000 bail.
Canton has a population of just under 13,000. About 70 percent of the city's residents are black and 24 percent are white. The mayor and six of the seven aldermen elected in 2017 are black, the other alderman is white.
Canton latched onto the Hollywood nickname because parts of "A Time to Kill" and "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?" were filmed there. The white-columned Madison County Courthouse sits at the center of its town square. For a month leading into Christmas , some 200,000 lights are strung overhead and on trees around the courthouse, and plate-glass windows around the square are decorated with reindeer, toys, and images of Santa Claus.
Harris, who works for a supplier at the Nissan automotive manufacturing plant just south of Canton, had lunch on his day off Friday at a sports bar on the town square. Sipping a glass of sweet ice tea as a television blared a sports talk program, Harris said he had heard talk of absentee ballot fraud in city elections.
"You shouldn't cheat," Harris said firmly.
Elaine Blair, 54, of Canton, was bundled up in a sweat shirt, scarf, and warm hat on a drizzly Friday as temperatures hovered around 50 degrees (10 Celsius). She parked beside Peace Street a couple of blocks from the Canton square and sold collard greens, turnip greens, and mustard greens from the back of her pickup.
Blair has lost two races against Canton for alderman. The first was to a man in 2013. After he died during his term, Blair ran in a 2015 special election and lost to McNeil.
"It's unfortunate that this happened to her," Blair said of McNeil's indictment. "But, I see some of the things she was doing ... were kind of like over the top."