Ward 4 council candidate Patricia Ann Douglas said she will be speaking with her attorney about the next steps in her challenge to the April 6 Democratic primary election after the Columbus Municipal Executive Committee declined to act on the challenge during its Tuesday meeting.
In a letter hand-delivered to executive committee chairman Melodie Cunningham on Monday, Jackson attorney Spencer Ritchie, who is representing the Douglas campaign, released a list of eight voters who voted in the primary who the Douglas campaign says are not residents of Ward 4. Of the eight voters alleged to live outside the ward — but used Ward 4 addresses to vote in the primary — three listed their address at the home of Marty Turner, who was declared the winner of the primary.
The letter also included the names of four absentee ballot voters who the Douglas campaign claims did not legally request ballots.
The April 6 primary was certified on April 16 and showed former councilman Marty Turner had defeated Douglas by a 94-90 vote margin.
In the letter, Ritchie offered two alternatives to satisfy his client’s claims — subpoena the voters named in the letter to ascertain for whom they voted and adjust the election results after deducting the disqualified votes from the candidates’ totals, or call a special election to determine the primary winner.
The executive committee met Tuesday, where Lowndes County District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks addressed members before it began discussions of the challenge.
“As y’all know, I’m just an adviser here and not a member of the Democratic Executive Committee,” said Brooks, a county elected official. “I have looked at the letter and talked to the Secretary of State’s Office for guidance on how you should handle this matter.”
Brooks provided the committee with an Attorney General’s opinion that addressed a similar dispute in Lafayette County in October 1991.
“Based on this opinion, and there hasn’t been a new opinion on this since it was issued, this committee does not have the authority to subpoena people to ask them how they voted, neither does this committee have the authority to set an election that has been certified aside,” Brooks said. “That is a question for the judiciary.”
Brooks suggested the committee pass a proposal to inform the Douglas campaign that it lacks the authority to provide the remedies her campaign requested.
Reached Wednesday afternoon, Douglas said she had not received the letter and was not aware of its decision on Tuesday.
“I thought (the candidates) were supposed to be notified so that we could speak before the committee,” Douglas said. “That didn’t happen.”
Ritchie said the state’s election law required the committee to give the candidates five days notice before discussing the challenge, but he said he would have to consult with Douglas before determining whether to challenge the way the committee handled the petition or proceed with filing suit in circuit court. Ritchie said the campaign has 10 days to file the suit after delivering the petition to the committee.
“I’ll leave it to (Douglas) to make that decision,” Ritchie said. “If the (committee) doesn’t take the action we believe is necessary, or if they don’t act at all, it’s not the end of the world. We still have the judicial process.”
Douglas said the Democratic Executive Committee’s failure to act won’t prevent her from moving forward with the challenge.
“I’m going to go to the fullest extent because I know where these people live and they didn’t live at the address they listed,” Douglas said. “I don’t plan to stop because what happened isn’t right and everybody knows it.”
Turner, when reached Wednesday, called the challenge “a distraction” but recognized Douglas’ right to challenge the outcome.
“This is America,” Turner said. “If she feels that something is wrong, she has every right to challenge. For me, and my campaign, we consider it a distraction because we know we didn’t do anything wrong.”
Turner said the list of voters Douglas alleges to have voted illegally shows her campaign “didn’t do their homework.”
“The three people she mentioned who lived at my address are my sister and two nephews,” Turner said. “It’s been our family home for a long, long time. People here know that. Another one of the voters they say lives at an address of a house that’s under construction. You don’t live in a house under construction. So that’s the kind of (claims) I’m seeing in this challenge. I’m not worried about this. Like I said, it’s just a distraction as far as I’m concerned.”
Lowndes County Circuit Clerk Teresa Barksdale said if the Douglas campaign filed suit, it would be filed as a civil suit and assigned to one of the district’s three circuit court judges.
“What would happen then is that the judge would ask the Mississippi Supreme Court to assign a special judge — a circuit court judge from another district — to hear the case,” said Barksdale, who consulted the Secretary of State’s Office about how the case would be handled. “The judge would listen to what both parties have to say and then make a ruling.”
Barksdale said civil challenges to elections are rare.
“I think we’ve had two in recent years,” she said. “Both were dismissed. In one of them, the candidate withdrew the suit, and in the other the judge dismissed it.”
Starkville Ward 4 challenge
In Starkville, Ward 4 alderman candidate Austin Check is challenging his two-vote loss to Kevin Daniels in the Republican primary. Check’s complaint alleges at least two counted ballots in the primary were cast by citizens living outside the ward.
The Republican Municipal Election Committee will meet to address the challenge at 4 p.m. in the municipal courtroom at City Hall.
The general election is June 8.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.