Miss. Supreme Court to consider ballot dispute

Published 10:59 pm Saturday, September 13, 2008

Gov. Haley Barbour is asking the Mississippi Supreme Court to take his side in a dispute over the ballot placement for a special election to fill Trent Lott’s former U.S. Senate seat.

Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Tomie Green on Friday ordered Barbour and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann to move the special election close to the top of the ballot, with the regular federal elections, instead of the bottom.

Green said “the principles of fairness and justice” demand that the special election be listed among the other federal races.

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Barbour took his case to the Supreme Court, and justices are likely to consider the matter next week. They gave Democrats until Monday to respond to arguments made by Barbour and Hosemann, both of whom are Republicans.

“The appeal is urgent,” attorneys for Barbour and Hosemann wrote in papers filed just before the work week ended.

Hosemann said paper ballots must be available for absentee voters starting Sept. 22 and for overseas voters starting Oct. 4. The election is Nov. 4.

Local election officials remain in limbo, with conflicting information about where they should put the race between Republican Roger Wicker and Democrat Ronnie Musgrove on the ballot.

None of the 82 counties have published their ballots, Hosemann said Friday. Only three counties — DeSoto, Lee and Yalobusha — use voting machines with paper ballots. The other 79 counties use electronic machines.

Green said the Wicker-Musgrove race can be labeled as a special election so voters will know the two men are competing to fill the final four years of a six-year term.

Barbour and Hosemann filed an appeal hours after Green issued her ruling. They’re asking the Supreme Court to toss out Green’s decision.

Lott, a Republican, resigned last December and Barbour appointed Wicker to serve until the special election.

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 move down the ballot, which has some Democrats worried that voters will ignore the special Senate election.

Barbour — who unseated Musgrove in the 2003 governor’s race — decided Tuesday that the Wicker-Musgrove Senate race should appear near the bottom of the ballot, under local races for school boards, elections commissions and, in some counties, levee boards. He said special elections should be separated from regular elections.

Trudy Berger, a Democratic county election from Pike County, sued Barbour and Hosemann to have the ballot changed. She said voters might not be able to find the special Senate race if it’s buried beneath a half-dozen other contests.

The secretary of state’s office distributed the Barbour-approved sample ballot to the counties late Wednesday.

Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, on Thursday told election commissioners to put the special Senate election near the top, just below a regular election for the state’s other U.S. Senate seat. Hood said a 2000 state law dictates the order of races on ballots — national, statewide, state district, legislative, countywide, county district.

Green ordered the secretary of state’s office to distribute a revised sample ballot to local election officials. Hosemann said he did not work on a revised ballot Friday.

In a conference call with 79 of the 82 circuit clerks, he said he read them relevant parts of Green’s ruling “and left it to each clerk to make their decision” about how to prepare the ballots.

Hosemann said the electronic machines will tell a voter three times if any race has been left blank.

Green is elected without a partisan label, but she used to serve as a Democrat in the state House. Barbour is expected to have a friendlier venue in the conservative state Supreme Court.

Lott, now a lobbyist, 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.