Sojourner challenges election, cites ‘irregularities’ in Adams County

Published 12:04 am Friday, December 4, 2015

NATCHEZ — Republican Sen. Melanie Sojourner of Natchez is seeking to overturn her loss to former Sen. Bob Dearing, a Democrat, also from Natchez.

In a petition filed Wednesday with the state Senate, Sojourner says voting irregularities — including some in Adams County — should invalidate Dearing’s victory.

Dearing defeated Sojourner by 64 votes in District 37, which includes Adams, Amite, Franklin and Pike counties.

Dearing received 8,218 votes to Sojourner’s 8,154.

Next, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves appoints a Senate committee to consider the merits of Sojourner’s challenge, spokeswoman Laura Hipp said Thursday. Following Senate precedent, Reeves will make the appointments when the Legislature begins its session in January.

Sojourner, Dearing and representatives from their camps examined election materials in Adams County on Nov. 18 and 19 with Adams County Election Commissioner Larry Gardner, Circuit Clerk Eddie Walker and Board of Supervisors’ attorney Scott Slover. The examination included a review of all absentee and affidavit applications and envelopes.

Election “irregularities” Sojourner cites in the challenge petition include the wrongful acceptance or rejection of absentee ballots. The petition mention instances in which a reason for the rejection of one voter’s absentee ballot could not be determined by Sojourner or Dearing. The petition also states some accepted absentees were incomplete.

Of the 286 accepted absentees in Adams County, 234 contained voter witness signatures not written across the envelope flaps as required by state law, the challenge petition states.

Sojourner claims there is “disorganization and a lack of security in keeping and maintaining” absentee and affidavit ballots, ballot bags and voter machine tapes.

Those election materials and voting machine memory cards and encoders, the petition states, were not kept securely locked in appropriate precinct locked bags and were instead kept together in a single open cardboard box in an “occasionally locked” office.

State law sets forth security measures for election materials. Sojourner’s petition claims the failure to secure the materials was in violation of the law.

“Such problems were expressly recognized by election officials,” the petition states.

The petition states Gardner stated voting machine memory cards and encoders were not where they belonged.

Gardner could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Walker said Thursday evening he had not reviewed the petition and deferred comment until he could consult with the attorney.

Slover said he did not observe any overt instances of voter fraud during the inspection of election materials.

“But it’s obviously (Sojourner’s) right no make these types of complaints,” he said. “The voting process is designed so that both the candidates and citizens at large feel confident that this is the will of the people. We take it seriously, and we believe the will of the people was done on Election Day, but if there are errors or improvements that need to be made, we will look at any and all of them.”

Sojourner’s petition also includes claims of incomplete absentee ballots in Franklin County, as well as sworn statements by Anita Leonard, a GOP poll watcher at the Bude precinct in Franklin County. Leonard wrote that she saw three poll workers provide assistance to voters who didn’t need it because they were not blind or illiterate. Leonard also said she saw two poll workers fail to check voters’ photo identification. Sojourner’s petition also has a similar statement by Carl E. Cupit, a Republicans precinct bailiff in Bude. He says poll workers who acted improperly are Democrats.

Sojourner asks the Senate to toss out all votes from the Bude precinct and says that would give her 8,020 votes and Dearing 7,842. Campaign spokesman Keith Plunkett said Sojourner’s petition shows “a very credible and compelling list of infractions.”

“We believe this clearly shows that had it not been for criminal voter fraud, Sen. Sojourner would have been re-elected,” Plunkett said Thursday.

Dearing said Thursday he has “complete faith” in the process by which the Senate committee will hear the challenge and that he will be upheld as the winner.

“I have confidence that the votes in Senate District 37 were legally cast, that the votes were counted accurately by the election commissioners, that they and the circuit clerks properly exercised their duties and that I won the general election,” Dearing said.

In 2011, Sojourner unseated Dearing after he had served in the Senate 32 years.

This is not Sojourner’s first involvement in challenging election results. In 2014, she was campaign manager for fellow state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, who lost a contentious Republican primary runoff in a U.S. Senate race to longtime incumbent Thad Cochran. McDaniel sued, unsuccessfully, to try to overturn his loss to Cochran, claiming the runoff was tainted by voting irregularities.

The Mississippi Constitution says disputes about the outcome of legislative elections are decided by the state House and Senate, with each chamber handling its own disputed races.

Sojourner is the third legislative candidate trying to overturn a loss in November’s election.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, has already appointed a committee to handle two challenges after the session begins.

One petition was filed by Republican Mark Tullos of Raleigh, who seeks to overturn his loss to five-term Democratic Rep. Bo Eaton of Taylorsville. Each received 4,589 votes in the District 79 race in Smith and Jasper counties in the general election, and Eaton won a tiebreaker in a drawing of straws.

The other petition was filed by Tasha Dillon, who lost to five-term Rep. David Myers in the Aug. 4 Democratic primary in District 98 in Pike and Walthall counties. Dillon lost by 144 votes, but she said voting irregularities should invalidate Myers’ victory. Both are from McComb.

Committees will recommend what the House or Senate should do in each race: seat the winner, seat the petitioner or order a new election.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.