Miss. governor sued over ballot spot for Lott seat

Published 1:10 pm Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Democratic county election commissioner is suing Mississippi’s Republican governor for putting the special election for Trent Lott’s U.S. Senate seat near the bottom of the ballot this fall.

Trudy Berger, a commissioner in south Mississippi’s Pike County, filed the lawsuit Tuesday, hours after Gov. Haley Barbour set the ballot order.

Berger said voters might not be able to find the Senate race between Democrat Ronnie Musgrove and Republican Roger Wicker if it’s buried beneath contests for school board, local election commissioners and levee boards.

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“When voters get confused on a ballot, bad things happen. It takes longer for them to cast their vote,” Berger told Barbour at a public meeting Tuesday.

Wicker and Musgrove are competing to fill the final four years of Lott’s six-year term, and both national parties have their eyes on the seat as Democrats try to strengthen their majority in the Senate. Mississippi is a strongly Republican state, but Musgrove, a former governor, has better statewide name recognition than Wicker, a former north Mississippi congressman.

Barbour moved Wicker from the House to temporarily fill the Senate seat when Lott, a Republican, retired last December. One of the governor’s nephews, Austin Barbour, is managing Wicker’s campaign.

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

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said the machines used in 79 counties will tell a voter three times if any race has been left blank on an electronic ballot.

“Mississippi voters will end up deciding this election, not the order of the ballot,” Hosemann said. “This is a little inside politics.”

Barbour set the ballot order based on a recommendation from Hosemann, a fellow Republican. Barbour, Hosemann and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood make up the state’s Board of Election Commissioners. Hood said it’s up to the governor, not the board, to determine ballot order.

Hood and Barbour disagree about whether the state’s 82 counties must follow the sample ballot. Hood says it’s a suggestion; Barbour says counties are obligated to use the sample format. The governor, who has worked on several Republican campaigns and previously chaired the national party, said in a statement Tuesday that the lawsuit was baseless. He said he has always seen special elections placed at the bottom of the ballot.

“Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood and his surrogates continue to play politics with one of the fundamental rights we have as citizens: the right to vote,” said Barbour, who unseated Musgrove as governor in 2003.

Musgrove’s current campaign manager, Tim Phillips, said Barbour and Hosemann are violating a 2000 state law that requires statewide offices — such as U.S. Senate — to be listed together on a ballot.

“They don’t get to make up the law,” Phillips said. “The law is clear. It should be at the top of the ballot.”

Wicker campaign spokesman Ryan Annison said Wicker never considered ballot order a significant issue.

“Sen. Wicker is focusing on his own race, not ballot placement,” Annison said.

Mississippi also has a normal U.S. Senate election this year, between longtime Republican incumbent Thad Cochran and Democrat Erik Fleming, a former state representative who’s running a low-budget campaign. That race will appear second on the ballot, just below president.

Lott spent 19 years in the Senate and worked his way up to the Republicans’ top ranks. He lost his leadership post after praising 100-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond in late 2002 with remarks many interpreted as racist.

Lott, who’s now a lobbyist, is the brother-in-law of Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, a high-profile trial lawyer who has successfully sued tobacco and asbestos companies. Scruggs reported to federal prison Aug. 4 to begin a five-year term for conspiring to bribe a state judge in Mississippi.