May 19, 2017 10:39:15 AM
Carl Smith - email@example.com
Mayor-elect Lynn Spruill's primary runoff lead was reduced to six votes Thursday after Starkville election commissioners accepted one remaining affidavit ballot and certified the results for both the Ward 1 Republican and the citywide Democratic races.
While challenger Johnny Moore has not yet officially challenged the results, his attorney William Starks unsuccessfully argued for a recount of the entire election and a re-examination of absentee and affidavit ballots before the city election committee, acting on guidance from the Mississippi Secretary of State's Office, certified the results and said any possible challenges and future requests would have to go before the Oktibbeha County Democratic Party.
"We called the (MSOS) this morning to double-check all of this. They said with absolute certainty and without equivocation that no handling of ballots, no recounts, no checking, no verifying, no nothing occur until after the certification, if indeed a challenge is made, period," said Municipal Election Commissioner P.C. McLaurin.
While arguing for the requests, Starks also provided a glimpse at what the Moore camp will likely argue if it does proceed with a challenge.
The attorney, who also represented Ward 1 incumbent and Republican candidate Ben Carver during candidate Jason Camp's challenge with the GOP, said in a letter to commissioners proper election procedure was not followed when absentee ballots were counted at City Hall instead of at voting precincts and the possibility of human error exists with the complete tally.
Starks also said other election day discrepancies exist -- one ward showed a difference in voter signatures in the poll book and the number of ballots cast -- and at least two affidavit votes were rejected erroneously.
The election commission, he said, "acted one way" when accepting some affidavits and "acted another way" to reject others.
"The absentees were never supposed to be counted here. I don't know if that caused any problems, but it does show a lack of regard for procedure," Starks said to commissioners. "The force of law is you're going to have to sign off saying these are accurate and certified results. We know of at least one ballot that certainly, I think, is going to show up to bite you in the butt, as they say. You're putting your name on the certification, and I think that with the knowledge you have, that's impossible to do."
Municipal Election Commissioner Jim McKell suggested the group, along with Democratic Municipal Election Committee Chairwoman Patti Drapala, confer behind closed doors about proceeding with Starks' request, but Spruill's attorney Lydia Quarles objected, saying the group lacked legal authority to re-open ward boxes and hold a recount.
"If we don't have legal authority for this, I'm not going to participate in the discussion. If the secretary of state said this needs to be certified and a challenge needs to be made (later), I stand on that. That's the legal authority," Drapala said, ending the possibility of a closed-door meeting with the election commission.
The Moore campaign now has about 30 days for various facets of a challenge, which includes a 20-day window from certification to challenge the results with the Democratic Party and then a 10-day window to file a lawsuit if the party doesn't make a timely decision.
The campaign, Starks said, would file its formal request with the city to inspect all election ballots Thursday. While Starks questioned rejected absentee and affidavit ballots in the election commission meeting, he said the campaign will also scrutinize ballots that were accepted.
"We certainly hope that everybody who came out to vote and cast a ballot gets their vote counted. Just like state law requires that (voting rules) be liberally construed in the favor of the voter, we would ask that that be the case here," he said.
If Spruill's lead survives a potential challenge, she will become Starkville's first female mayor. She ended election day with a 12-vote lead, while the city election committee's affidavit vetting process Wednesday reduced that total to seven.
The election's last ballot was counted Thursday after its voter showed up to City Hall and provided the proper identification missing Tuesday.
"I am very comfortable that the poll workers, the election commission and the Democratic Executive Committee were diligent and exacting in their efforts to have a fair election. I certainly understand working the process as authorized by state law," Spruill said. "I will be meeting with department heads, board members and community leaders to make certain I am up to speed starting day No. 1."
Moore declined to comment following Thursday's meeting.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch