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August 23, 2017 10:34:19 AM
Starkville mayoral candidate Johnny Moore's election challenge remains on hold after Special Circuit Judge Barry Ford stayed the matter ahead of an anticipated appeal from Mayor Lynn Spruill.
Ford denied Spruill's attempt to dismiss the entire challenge in July on the grounds the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case, alleging Moore intentionally sidestepped the Starkville Democratic Municipal Election Committee by filing litigation in circuit court.
An order filed by Ford last week formally denied her dismissal attempt but allows her attorneys, Jim Mozingo and Lydia Quarles, to pursue an interlocutory appeal with the Mississippi Supreme Court.
His order also granted partial approval of a Moore request to review ballots in City Clerk Lesa Hardin's possession. Ford will allow the campaign permission to make copies of nine affidavit ballots and their envelopes, all absentee ballots and their envelopes and the voter receipt books after Moore requested a more thorough examination.
Spruill's counsel has yet to file the appeal, but Mozingo said it would happen soon.
A timetable for the appeal's resolution is unknown. Moore's attorney, William Starks, is expected to file a response with the court after the appeal is filed. Justices will then decide whether to take up the matter or delegate it to the Mississippi Court of Appeals.
"We feel good about the appeal. It's definitely an interesting jurisdictional question. We don't think the cases Mr. Moore's attorney cited applies under these circumstances," Mozingo said. "We need clarification and context, because it's a substantial and significant question."
Starks was out of his office Tuesday and unavailable for comment.
Moore contested May's Democratic Primary runoff after he finished six votes behind Spruill. His challenge first went to the Starkville Democratic election committee, which scheduled a hearing at his behest, but Moore pushed his objections to circuit court one day before the group was scheduled to rule on the matter.
In July's hearing before Ford, Mozingo argued Starks effectively abandoned the challenge -- and the appropriate process to challenge party-administered primaries -- by filing Moore's petition for judicial review.
Mozingo also argued the court only had jurisdiction to review the election committee's decision to affirm Spruill's election victory, but Ford ruled Starks' filing was timely and should proceed.
Moore's overall challenge claims a signature issue between the city and party means the runoff election was invalid and Starkville breached the agreement by using paper ballots instead of voting machines.
It also alleges other issues: Starkville election commissioners incorrectly rejected at least nine affidavit ballots, and more than 60 absentee ballots have issues; numerous ballots contained improper and illegal markings; and the number of signatures in voter receipt and poll books from certain precincts did not match the number of ballots cast in the runoff.
An amended petition for judicial review filed in June asks the court to count all improperly excluded ballots and determine a true winner or, if it is impossible to discern the will of the voters due to the co-mingling of legally and illegally cast ballots, hold another mayoral election.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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