Clark: Reopening candidates’ filing deadline disenfranchises voters

Published 1:11 am Sunday, September 24, 2006

Some Mississippians’ voting rights will be hurt by a decision to reset the qualifying deadline for candidates in four special legislative elections, Secretary of State Eric Clark says.

The state Election Commission voted 2-1 Thursday to reopen the candidates’ filing process that originally had closed Sept. 8. The new deadline is Oct. 24.

Gov. Haley Barbour and Attorney General Jim Hood voted for the change, and Clark voted against it.

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Barbour is a Republican, and Hood and Clark are Democrats, so the vote was not split along party lines.

In an interview Friday, Hood said he recommended the new deadline because state law says candidates can be on a special election ballot if they file qualifying papers “not less than 10 working days prior to the election.”

Hood said if the filing deadline were more than 10 days before the election, a person who wants to be a candidate could file a lawsuit to challenge the election.

“You’re running the risk of setting aside a dadgum election and costing taxpayers a bunch of money,” Hood said.

Barbour spokesman Pete Smith said the governor voted to reopen the qualifying process for the special legislative elections because of Hood’s interpretation of the law.

“The governor just agreed with the attorney general,” Smith said.

Clark called the decision a “serious mistake” and said “hundreds of Mississippians will effectively lose the right to vote by absentee ballot for their legislator.”

“There will be no absentee voting in legislative elections for more than a month. Absentee voting by mail will be virtually impossible,” Clark said in a news release Friday.

Hood said he doesn’t want to deny anyone the chance to vote absentee, particularly those serving in the military. But, he said if a lawsuit is filed, a judge will examine state law — not policies about when ballots are available.

“I don’t think it’s as bad as what he’s saying it is,” Hood said of Clark.

Clark also said there could be confusion on election day because the legislative races might have to appear on paper ballots rather than on computerized voting machines.

The special legislative elections are on Nov. 7 — the same day as the regularly scheduled general election for judges, four congressional seats and one U.S. Senate seat.

One state House seat and two state Senate seats are open because of deaths; one House seat is open because Barbour tapped a lawmaker to serve on the state Public Service Commission.

Candidates do not list party affiliations on special election ballots.

Winners of the special elections will serve the remainder of the four-year term that ends in January 2008.

The vacant seats:

— House District 34 in parts of Carroll, Holmes, Humphreys, Leflore, Montgomery and Washington counties. Rep. May Whittington, D-Schlater, died of cancer July 12. Three candidates qualified by Sept. 8 to run in the special election.

— House District 116 in part of Harrison County. Rep. Leonard Bentz, R-Biloxi, was appointed to the state Public Service Commission. Two candidates have qualified to run.

— Senate District 14, which covers all of Carroll County and parts of Attala, Grenada, Leflore, Montgomery and Tallahatchie counties. Sen. Robert “Bunky” Huggins, R-Greenwood, died of cancer May 10. Six candidates have qualified to run.

— Senate District 41 in parts of Covington, Forrest, Jefferson Davis, Lamar and Marion counties. Sen. Billy Harvey, D-Prentiss, died of cancer March 2. Seven candidates have qualified to run.