Election lawsuit heard

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 31, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; If the U.S. Justice Department does not preclear district lines for Adams County’s justice court judge and constable races by June 6, Circuit Court will take it from there.

The Adams County Democratic Executive Committee filed suit May 8 against the Board of Supervisors to delay elections in those two races unless Justice preclears the lines by a date set by the court.

As of the 2000 Census, Adams County’s population dropped below 35,000, and under state law counties of fewer than 35,000 people can only have two justice court judges and two constables.

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A bill that would have allowed the county to keep three districts &045; Northern, Southern and Southeastern &045; died in a legislative committee earlier this year.

But candidates had already qualified to run in the Southeastern District. They will now be listed on the ballot as running in the new Northern or Southern districts, depending on where they live.

Thomas McNeely, attorney for the Democratic Committee, noted in a hearing held Thursday before Judge Lillie Blackmon Sanders that primary elections are set for Aug. 5. However, the deadline for absentee ballots to be printed and received by the circuit clerk is June 23.

And Circuit Clerk M.L. &uot;Binkey&uot; Vines said a printer will need at least two weeks to print those ballots.

Therefore Democrats, who are running the primary election for the justice court and constable races, said the latest they can have the ballot information sent to the printer is June 6.

In testifying at the hearing, Beverly Merrill, secretary-treasurer for the Democratic Executive Committee, said she would prefer to have the lines precleared before printing the ballots.

Otherwise, she said, &uot;we would be running an illegal election.&uot;

Bob Latham, an attorney for the Board of Supervisors, argued that even if the lines were precleared by Justice after the primary had been held, the clearance would validate the election.

There two solutions to the problem, Sanders said, one being to hold a special election, which could cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.

Another would be to print the ballots and then, if preclearance isn’t received by the election, not to count the justice court and constable votes on absentee ballots and to block the race on voting machines for the primary election.

Merrill said that as of Thursday, she did not know whether it was legal to block the race on the voting machines.

Also in Thursday’s hearing, witnesses for the Democratic Executive Committee said waiting to see whether the lines would be precleared has put judge and constable candidates at a severe disadvantage.

That, they said, is because candidates still do not have detailed descriptions of their districts so they can see exactly which voters are in their districts and where they need to campaign.

Some candidates have delayed campaigning until they can get such information, Merrill said.

&uot;I ordered (campaign) cards and was passing them out, but I stopped (because) I’m confused as to which district I should be campaigning in,&uot; constable candidate George Washington said.

&uot;My district went from 7,000 to 12,000 voters, so that’s 5,000 new voters I’d like to contact,&uot; Justice Court Judge Charlie Vess said.

Because of the confusion, Vess said, he does not know who many of those voters are.

But Sanders noted that maps are available somewhere that can tell candidates what area their new districts encompass. After all, in order to send voters cards telling them where to vote, &uot;the Election Commission is working off something,&uot; Sanders said.

Some candidates present at Thursday’s hearing said they planned to seek copies of the map as soon as possible.

&uot;I’m going right down to the Election Commission to get one,&uot; said Justice Court Judge Mary Lee Toles.

Meanwhile, Latham said the county has asked Justice

to rush in approving &045; hopefully within the next four to six weeks.

&045; the justice court judge and constable lines that have now been sent to Washington.

But if that preclearance doesn’t happen by June 6, another hearing will be held on that date in Circuit Court on the matter, Sanders said.