Ballot dispute argued in Miss. Supreme Court

Published 1:20 pm Friday, September 19, 2008

Election officials will be hard-pressed to start absentee voting on time unless the Mississippi Supreme Court quickly resolves a ballot-order dispute over Trent Lott’s old Senate seat, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann says.

Seven of the nine justices heard arguments Wednesday about whether the special election for the U.S. Senate spot should appear near the top of the Nov. 4 ballot or the bottom. Justices gave no indication of when they will rule.

Speaking outside the courtroom after listening to the arguments, Hosemann said election officials in the 82 counties need a few days to print paper ballots for absentee voting, which is set to begin Monday.

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If the Supreme Court rules after Thursday, Hosemann said, “I just don’t know if we’re going to make it.”

Lott, a Republican, retired last December, and Republican Roger Wicker and Democrat Ronnie Musgrove are competing to fill the final four years of the six-year term.

Based on a recommendation from Hosemann, Gov. Haley Barbour decided last week that the Wicker-Musgrove race would be near the bottom of the ballot.

Trudy Berger, a Democratic election commissioner from Pike County, sued Barbour and Hosemann, who are both Republicans. She said voters could become confused if the special election is separated from the other federal races, including the regular election for the other Senate seat.

“I took the action … because I’m a Christian and I’m committed to the principle of justice,” Berger said Wednesday after the Supreme Court hearing.

A circuit judge agreed with Berger last Friday and ordered Barbour to elevate the race on the ballot. Barbour appealed to the Supreme Court.

Attorneys for both sides told justices Wednesday that a 2000 state law specifies ballot order, with federal contests first, followed by other statewide races, then district races.

John Henegan, an attorney for the governor, said the law is “totally silent” about whether the ballot order is required for special elections or just regular contests.

Sam Begley, an attorney for Berger, argued that the 2000 law should apply to all.

Attorneys for both sides said a different state law requires that special elections be clearly distinguished from other races. Henegan said putting them on a separate part of the ballot makes that distinction.

Justice James Graves made quotation marks with his fingers as he asked Henegan: “Couldn’t you call it ’special election’? Put it up there in nice, big words?”

Both national parties are focusing on the Mississippi race. Republicans want to keep the seat Lott won 20 years ago, while Democrats are trying to strengthen their Senate majority.

Barbour moved Wicker from the U.S. House to temporarily fill the Senate seat after Lott retired last December to become a lobbyist. Wicker is serving until the special election, and one of the governor’s nephews is his campaign manager. Musgrove is a former governor who lost his re-election campaign to Barbour in 2003.

Even after the Supreme Court rules, there’s still a chance ballot preparation could be delayed if the U.S. Justice Department considers a request from a top congressional Democrat. Because of Mississippi’s history of suppressing minority voting, the department must approve changes in the state’s election laws or procedures.

U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers of Michigan said separating the Wicker-Musgrove race from the other federal contests could disenfranchise some Mississippi voters, and he asked the department to block the ballot Barbour prepared. A Justice Department spokeswoman said Conyers’ request would be handled after the state Supreme Court acts.

Paper ballots also are needed for overseas voting, which starts Oct. 4. Most counties use electronic machines for the November election.