Johnny Moore talks to his attorney, Will Starks, on Friday in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court. Judge Barry Ford ruled against Moore in his challenge of his election loss to Lynn Spruill in last year's election. Photo by: Alex Holloway/Dispatch Staff
July 21, 2018 10:07:42 PM
Johnny Moore quickly left the Oktibbeha County circuit courtroom Friday following a judge's ruling he would not be made mayor of Starkville.
Judge Barry Ford, who was specially appointed to hear Moore's challenge to his six-vote loss to Lynn Spruill in the May 2017 Democratic runoff, decided in Spruill's favor. Ford did knock Spruill's margin of victory down to five votes, but he rejected the Moore camp's argument that several other absentee and affidavit ballots were either invalidly tabulated or improperly rejected.
While Moore didn't stick around for media interviews after the hearing, his attorney William Starks, of Columbus, said Friday's result was not what his client had anticipated.
"We're obviously disappointed and shocked by the results," Starks said. "We felt like we put on a case where there were at least 10 ballots that were cast that should've been counted in our opinion."
Moore will have 30 days after Ford's ruling is entered in the circuit court to file an appeal with the Mississippi Supreme Court. Starks said an appeal is possible but not yet definite.
"We'll need some time to talk about it," Starks said. "An appeal is an expensive process, so we have to weigh those things and determine the risk/reward and all those types of things. I do think we certainly have grounds for an appeal."
Among those grounds is testimony in April from municipal election commissioner Jim McKell that a ballot cast by David A. Moore should have been counted and wasn't. Ford previously said he would count that ballot but reversed that decision Friday.
"After he'd even said one ballot would count, he just reversed course without explaining on each one," Starks said Friday. "The lack of explanation on why it shouldn't count was disappointing. I thought the judge should have gone through each of those and explained why it was not a valid ballot if that was his finding.
"It was basically 'Well the election commissioners did their jobs,'" Starks added. "They admitted on the stand that they didn't."
During the April trial, McKell testified that commissioners decided to accept or reject absentee and affidavit ballots based on the information available to them at the time through the Statewide Election Management System (SEMS). Commissioners rely on the system to verify addresses and other voter information.
Starks presented information pulled from SEMS this year during the trial to show that voters -- including David A. Moore -- lived in the city. However, McKell testified that current information may not reflect what was available to commissioners at the time of the election.
"On each of these, there's the possibility that what SEMS showed on that day and what we have now is not the same," McKell said during the trial. "It may have been updated."
During Friday's hearing, Ford said he found no evidence of wrongdoing and said the election commission acted properly during the election.
"It is the obligation of the court when viewing any voting irregularity brought before it to weight the law and desire for statutory compliance with the recognition that mere technical irregularities in the election process are not grounds for invalidation of an election, absent evidence of fraud or intentional wrongdoing," he said.
"The court finds that the election commission performed as they should have and as they were directed by statute," he added.
For the affidavits, Ford said the filing of an affidavit, according to Mississippi Code section 23-15-573, is "a condition precedent to the permission to vote." He indicated there may have been issues with the filling out the affidavits properly.
Moore, like Spruill, had dozens of supporters in the courtroom on Friday. Starks thanked them for their support.
"We appreciate their support and assistance throughout the process," Starks said. "My client and myself have been fueled by that support. We're disappointed that the outcome wasn't one that we wanted or what we think is just, in this case."
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