Justice Department asked to examine Miss. ballot

Published 2:48 pm Thursday, September 18, 2008

A top congressional Democrat asked the Justice Department Tuesday to block Mississippi’s Republican governor from putting a special election for Trent Lott’s old Senate seat near the bottom of the November ballot.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said it was a “blatant violation” of the Voting Rights Act for Gov. Haley Barbour to separate the special election from other federal races, including a regular election for Mississippi’s other U.S. Senate seat.

“The Mississippi governor does not get to change the rules when the race is not going his way,” Conyers, of Michigan, said in a news release.

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Barbour decided Sept. 9 to put the special Senate election between Republican Roger Wicker and Democrat Ronnie Musgrove near the bottom of the ballot, saying that’s where many past special elections have appeared.

A spokesman for Barbour said the ballot is consistent with state and federal law.

The Justice Department will consider Conyers’ request after the Mississippi Supreme Court rules on a Democratic lawsuit challenging the ballot, spokeswoman Jamie Hais said.

Because of Mississippi’s history of racial discrimination, the department must clear any election changes to protect minorities’ voting rights. Conyers contends putting the special election at the bottom of the ballot is such a change.

Both parties want Lott’s seat, left vacant when he retired in December to become a lobbyist. There are four years left in his term. Democrats are trying to strengthen their majority in Washington, and Republicans want to keep a seat that’s been theirs since Lott first won it in 1988.

Democrats hope Musgrove will get a boost in strongly Republican Mississippi if there’s significant turnout for presidential nominee Barack Obama. But people tend to leave less-publicized races blank as they go farther down the ballot, which has some Democrats worried that voters will ignore the special Senate election.

Trudy Berger, a Democratic election commissioner from south Mississippi, sued Barbour, saying voters could become confused if the special election is difficult to find on the ballot.

Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green on Friday ordered Barbour to move the race higher. Barbour’s appeal to the state Supreme Court was pending Tuesday.

Barbour — a former Republican National Committee chairman — moved Wicker from north Mississippi’s U.S. House seat to temporarily fill Lott’s Senate seat until the special election. One of the governor’s nephews is managing Wicker’s campaign. Musgrove is a former governor who lost his re-election race to Barbour in 2003.