May 10, 2013 10:25:55 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
An official from the Mississippi Secretary of State's Office began observing unfinished Ward 2 affidavit processing today at Starkville City Hall.
City Clerk Taylor Adams confirmed Thursday the observer was expected to begin the process at 11 a.m. today.
Incumbent Sandra Sistrunk finished ahead of challenger Lisa Wynn by a two-vote margin Tuesday, but numerous affidavits remained uncounted.
As Wednesday's original processing session ended, Adams told the public he was noticed that the entire Ward 2 race could be contested by Friday. Adams had not received a notice by 5 p.m. Thursday.
Sistrunk's legal counsel challenged a majority of the 17 affidavits Wednesday, and election commissioners still require legal guidance in determining whether it should accept or reject some of those ballots. At least eight of those affidavit ballots remain in limbo.
Pamela Weaver, the communications director for the Secretary of State's Office, said the official would serve only in an observation role. Any potential legal questions, she said, would still be referred to counsel in Jackson.
"The information we got from the city attorney (Chris Latimer) relating to individuals moving from the county to the city has complicated the matter somewhat. Our feeling is that there is no clear way for us to proceed as a commission that is equitable to both parties without some oversight," Adams said Thursday.
Both candidates agreed they were comfortable with state oversight, and the Municipal Election Commission disbanded for the day.
The matter under review is what constitutes an acceptable affidavit. These affidavits are supposed to be sworn statements which provide accurate information about the voter, and Sistrunk has challenged numerous documents due to various inaccuracies.
The first ballot contested Wednesday was from a voter who incorrectly listed her date of birth as the day of the primary. When cross referenced in the state election system, officials confirmed her birth year as 1969.
That same voter also provided a current Ward 2 address and stated she had not recently moved, but the state election database showed she was a registered voter of Ward 6.
Four election commissioners voted to reject the affidavit, but Wynn asked for an attorney general or secretary of state opinion on the matter.
The second affidavit was unanimously rejected by the election commission after the voter was not found on any registered voter rolls.
Numerous issues were raised with the third ballot examined by the candidates. First, the voter originally cast an affidavit ballot in the November presidential election which indicated a change-of-address request for her new address in Pecan Circle. The voter's sworn statement from Tuesday said she lived on Helen Circle. Election workers also discovered another former address was listed as Zuber Street on a previous affidavit.
Wynn contended eligible voters can move - "be here today and gone tomorrow" - and still have a right to vote as a qualified voter in that ward via affidavit.
"We're not talking about the address; we're talking about the accuracy of this ballot," Adams said. "The challenge we're dealing with represents some of those things are missing. "
That affidavit was also challenged because it appeared the voter entered her driver's license number in the phone number entry area. Election Commissioner Jim McKell said it appeared the voter's writing style produced large letters, and she simply ran out of room to input the information in the correct area.
Wynn asked what happens when a voter does not have a phone number, and McKell said a voter should write "no phone." Wynn then asked if those directions are written on the ballot, and Mckell said no.
"This is definitely not a telephone number," McKell said. "If you put something there, it's assumed that's a telephone number because it says 'daytime telephone number.'"
Sistrunk then looked up the voter's telephone listing on the Internet which confirmed a listing in Pecan Acres.
"We're starting to grasp at straws here," Wynn said.
"I can't certify what that number is one way or another. We can't get into the business of certifying what a number is and is not," Adams said in regard to the incomplete entry. "Remember, our only role here is to make a judgment as to if this ballot appears to be a valid ballot. That relates to the 'shall' language we ... heard (earlier involving a challenged ballot from Ward 4)."
The commission unanimously accepted the affidavit, but Sistrunk then filed a challenge.
The 10th affidavit reviewed would also yield the same Helen Circle address. Officials said they believed this voter was either married or related to the first Helen Circle voter. This voter was last registered at a residence on Yellowjacket Drive as early as 2009, and a voter card was mailed to and returned from that address this year.
The commission also accepted the second Helen Circle affidavit under challenge.
The fourth affidavit was cast by a 17-year-old Linden Circle resident. Mississippi Code states voters who will be 18 before a general election may vote in the preceding primary. That voter listed his birthday as May 19 -- 12 days after the primary election -- and he registered to vote March 27.
The affidavit was challenged on the grounds the signature was illegible and an erroneous box was marked, but the commission voted to accept.
Election commissioners clarified previous questions surrounding the listed address for the voter producing the fifth affidavit. Originally, officials were unsure if her Louisville Street address was in Ward 2, but visual inspection and map comparison cleared the matter. City Clerk staff determined the voter was erroneously left off the ward's rolls. This affidavit was accepted unanimously, and no challenge was levied.
The sixth affidavit was not challenged after city officials determined the listed Arrowhead Drive address falls within city limits. Commissioners rejected the seventh, eighth and ninth affidavits because it was determined those voters' addresses falls outside Starkville.
Address issues were discovered by officials in regard to the 11th affidavit. Election data showed she registered at a county address in August 2012 and cast a county vote in that year's 2012 presidential election. That voter's Tuesday affidavit listed her address as Lynn Lane, which was also listed as a mailing address for the 2012 election, but did not attest to recently moving.
Sistrunk challenged the vote on the grounds of the addressing issue, an inaccurate driver's license number and signature issues.
"We're not here to look at people's signatures. None of us are handwriting experts. Why are we going down this road?" asked Wynn.
"Understand, when a candidate lodges a challenge, we have to consider that challenge on its merits. What is an issue here is what constitutes an affidavit," Adams replied.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to accept the ballot under challenge.
The group also accepted the 12th affidavit, which was originally challenged because the voter did not list her full name.
The 13th affidavit was cast by a 17-year-old who will be 18 by the June general election. The statewide election management system confirmed she registered to vote April 16, less than 30 days before the primary.
This affidavit was set aside for an attorney general ruling after state statute could not clarify if the voter needed to be registered 30 days before the primary or the general election.
The voter who cast the 14th affidavit listed a Louisville Street address but was listed in the city's computer as being registered to a Ward 6 Reed Road address. Sistrunk challenged this affidavit because the voter marked she had not recently moved, but commissioners voted to accept the document.
The commission first rejected the 15th affidavit after the voter failed to properly list his Louisville Street address but then left it in limbo for further research. The voter did not list the number of his address, just the street.
Another rejection followed as the commission kicked out the 16th affidavit because the voter lives outside of the city limits.
Address issues were also discovered with the 17th ballot. The voter stated she moved from North Jackson to McKee Street, but her mailing address was listed as Lynn Lane. The state election management computer system also listed her as inactive after her voter card, which was mailed to the Lynn Lane address, was returned.
The commission rejected the ballot.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch