May 9, 2013 10:39:46 AM
The voters who kept long-time Ward 4 councilman Fred Stewart in the race never made it to the polls.
Absentee ballots accounted for 100 of Stewart's 361 votes, enough to force a runoff election with challenger Marty Turner, who had accumulated 53.7 percent of the vote before the absentee ballots were counted. If a candidate had received 50 percent or more of the votes, he would have assume office without a runoff.
Stewart received 100 of the 127 votes cast by absentee ballot.
When the counting was completed, only eight votes separated the two top candidates. Turner finished with 371 votes or 48.1 percent of the 770 votes cast while Stewart garnered 363, or 47.1 percent. Maurice Webber had 36 votes. Turner and Stewart will now meet in a runoff May 21.
Overall, 25.7 percent of registered voters turned out for Tuesday's primaries. Out of 8,612 registered voters in those three wards, 2,215 cast ballots.
Of the total votes, 271 (12.2 percent) came from absentee ballots. City registrar Brenda Williams said that total was normal for city elections. Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann recently announced that his office would review absentee ballots cast in some cities for the primary elections after receiving complaints from municipal clerks regarding the high number of absentee ballots cast. Williams said she was not among those who were contacted by Hosemann's office.
State absentee laws dictate that anyone who votes absentee has to have their ballot notarized by an election official unless they are temporarily or permanently disabled, in which case they must have someone at least 18 years of age witness their signature.
The absentee vote proved critical for Stewart, where absentee voters accounted for 100 of his 363 votes. Turner had 81 more regular votes than Stewart but he picked up only 25 absentee votes. Turner had 53.7 percent of the vote before absentee counts were tallied Tuesday night only to find out those would make enough of a difference to bring him below the 50 percent mark and necessitate a runoff.
Stewart said he had a skilled campaign team who gathered information on voters who might not have been able to make it to the polls and educated those voters on their options of how to still participate through absentee voting.
"When you have people working for you, you expect them to produce," Stewart said. "We had people that had experience making sure everything was done like it was supposed to be and abided by the law. We try to have people who have experience who knew about absentee ballots. I'm not the first candidate they've campaigned for. They knew everybody in the ward and knew some of them were not able to get to the polls. We didn't go in with amateurs."
Upon finding out Tuesday night he would be spending two more weeks on the campaign trail, Turner had no comment other than to say he looked forward to the runoff. He said he had no plans to challenge the absentee ballots. Turner could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Stewart, who is running against an opponent for the first time since he was elected in 1998, said he was happy to have the second chance to reclaim his post.
"For the next two weeks we will give it all we've got," he said.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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