2007 election disputes unsettled as new year begins

Published 4:25 pm Wednesday, January 2, 2008

A number of election disputes carried over from 2007 remain unsettled as the new year begins.

In Wilkinson County, the winners for sheriff, circuit clerk and a supervisor post have not been settled. The August primary results have been challenged because of a decision by the county’s Democratic Executive Committee over whether absentee and hand ballots should be counted because of alleged voting irregularities.

Three incumbents, Circuit Clerk Mon Cree Allen, Sheriff Reginald Jackson and county Supervisor Richard Hollins, are fighting the county Democratic Party Executive Committee’s decision in which challengers Kirk Smith, Jessie Stewart and Lynn Tolliver Delaney were declared the winners in the race for supervisor, sheriff and circuit clerk, respectively.

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With the paper ballots, the incumbents would win; without the ballots, their challengers would.

Claude McInnis, executive vice president of the state Democratic Party, said he thinks that there are more disputes during this election cycle because many races were close.

“Because it’s so close, you have candidates who know that if they can just get a few more votes or they can get a few votes thrown out, then they will win,” McInnis told The Clarion-Ledger newspaper. “These kinds of cases almost always wind up in court.”

The Wilkinson County incumbents were losing the Democratic primary when the polls closed. They were declared winners after paper ballots were counted by a small group from the county’s Democratic Executive Committee. Additional members of the Democratic committee then decided to throw out all of the votes except those that were made electronically.

A court hearing before a judge appointed by the Mississippi Supreme Court had been scheduled for this week but could be delayed because one of the attorneys involved has been in the hospital, said Smith’s attorney Ben Piazza Jr.

The three races were left off the county’s general election ballot pending resolution.

Piazza said he takes on election disputes cases, but he said he has had to turn down some clients this year because there have been too many.

“There seem to be a lot more than usual,” he said.

Piazza said the Wilkinson County case is interesting in that it could be a while before it is settled.

A general election has to be held within 90 days of the judge’s decision whether the incumbents or the challengers won the primary.

“I’ve never had an election contest go on this long,” Piazza said.

Coahoma County likely will also hold a general election later this year. The sheriff’s race was withheld from the November general election because a judge declared the results from the Democratic primary invalid.

Circuit Judge Frank Vollor ruled that more than 100 absentee ballots from the primary could not be counted because they were not properly endorsed by the circuit clerk or one of his employees.

The Coahoma County Election Commission declared incumbent Sheriff Andrew Thompson Jr. the winner with 50.16 percent of the votes. There were five candidates for the position. Without the 100 votes, Thompson would be in a runoff with Friars Point Police Chief Charles Jones, who came in second.

Because the dispute over the absentee votes lasted through the general election, Vollor asked Gov. Haley Barbour to set a new election date. Barbour set two — one in December for the primary runoff and one in January for the general election.

Vollor then issued a stay on those elections, because Thompson is challenging whether two separate elections can be held.

The case is pending before the Supreme Court.

“The problem is that you can’t have a special primary election after the real general election,” said Ellis Pittman, Thompson’s attorney. “That’s the state law.”

Pittman said there should be one election, with Thompson, Jones and independent Rico Smith of Coahoma.

Thompson, who has served five terms, will serve as sheriff while the case is pending.

When the Legislature convenes on Tuesday, Canton Alderman Kenneth Wayne Jones will fill a seat he won from Sen. Joseph Thomas of Yazoo City. The Senate could decide if he keeps it.

Thomas filed a petition with the Senate after losing the Democratic primary to Jones by 131 votes. The Senate could decide whether Thomas should be awarded the position representing portions of Attala, Holmes, Madison and Yazoo counties, or possibly call for a new election.

Thomas contends some voters were not given the right ballots, a similar argument made in a disputed Jackson-area House race for District 71 in which Democratic challenger Adrienne Wooten beat Republican incumbent John Reeves in the general election by 221 votes.

In a revote that allowed more than 1,600 voters in four Jackson precincts to return to the polls, Wooten again defeated Reeves.

The special election triggered more charges of voter intimidation and illegal campaigning.

Wooten will be seated Tuesday when the Legislature convenes. After that, the House speaker will appoint a committee to review any post-election petitions and make a recommendation to the full body on which candidate to seat permanently.

In another legislative race, the Supreme Court has appointed a judge to hear the election challenge in Senate District 10, which includes all of Panola County and a part of Tate County.

Incumbent Sen. Nolan Mettetal of Sardis defeated challenger Mona Pittman of Batesville in the August Democratic Primary by 88 votes. Pittman contested the results.

Allegations surfaced of improper counting of absentee and affidavit ballots and improper storage of ballots and election materials in Panola County.

Mettetal’s name remained on the general election ballot and he defeated Republican Shelly Turner.