Committee named for Dearing, Sojourner election challenge

Published 12:59 am Wednesday, January 6, 2016

NATCHEZ — A committee of four Republicans and one Democrat will hear the election challenge that will determine who will be seated for Mississippi Senate District 37.

While former Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, is the certified winner of the November race for the district by a 64-vote margin, incumbent Sen. Melanie Sojourner R-Natchez, has challenged the results.

Sojourner’s challenge is based on allegations of election irregularities in Adams and Franklin counties, and she has asked the Senate to toss out the results of the Bude precinct in Franklin County, where five election workers have been arrested on charges of improper conduct based on affidavits filed by poll watchers. If the Bude precinct is invalidated, Sojourner would win the election.

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With the opening of the legislative session Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves appointed a five-member committee to hear the challenge. Committee members include senators Rita Parks, Hillman Frazier, Sally Doty, Joey Fillingane and Terry Burton.

Burton will serve as the chairman and the at-large member of the committee, while the other four represent the state’s four congressional districts. Frazier is the committee’s sole Democrat.

“The first, third, and fourth congressional districts all have a majority of their senators as Republicans, so obviously it made sense for Republicans to represent them; in the second district, there is a majority of Democrats, so it makes sense to appoint a Democrat to represent the district,” Reeves said.

“They represent their peers, and they are diverse; the committee has two females, an African American; they are not only representative of the Senate, but also of the people of Mississippi, and I think that is the fair way to do it.”

Burton was chosen as chairman because he has served on the only two other challenges to Senate races in the last 30 years, Reeves said, and was chairman both of those times. Burton was also voted president pro tem of the Senate Tuesday

“He understands the law, and I think he will do a fine job ensuring the lawyers of both parties are respected and given fair time,” he said.

“He obviously has a tremendous amount of respect from his fellow senators.”

The full Senate also adopted Tuesday a resolution that outlined the committee’s authority.

Once the committee has heard the cases by both sides, it will file a report with the Secretary of State and send a resolution with its recommendation to the Senate no later than Jan. 18.

The resolution — which the Senate can amend once it is received — could authorize seating Dearing, authorize seating Sojourner, declare the district seat vacant, order a new election for the whole district or for certain precincts or “any other remedy including those that are available to the courts in cases involving an election contest.”

The committee will have an organizational meeting this morning to set a schedule for the hearings.

“I plan to meet with them and tell them that, for the last 12 years I have been in public office, no one has worked harder than me in electing Republican officials, and I have spent untold hours and dollars working to elect a Republican supermajority,” Reeves said.

“But I also believe that at 7 p.m. on Election Day, it is no longer about campaigns or politics, or what is best for me or my party, but it is really a simple exercise in math, so the question this committee has to answer is who received the most legal votes cast on Election Day. I believe the most important thing the committee can do and that the Senate can do is ensure the will of the voters in Senate District 37 is enacted.”

Dearing said he and his attorney are working on their case, but at this point, “We just have to wait.”

“Everything is at a standstill until things are decided,” he said.

Sojourner said she and her legal team spent 11 hours taking depositions in Rankin County Monday.

“We feel really good about how the depositions went and the evidence that has been discovered, and we are kind of really looking forward to going through the process,” she said.

“Our prayer is a really fair and open process, that the evidence will be allowed to be presented and that the panel will be able to make an open and fair decision based on the evidence presented.”

Dearing held the District 37 seat from 1980 until 2012, when he lost it to Sojourner. In the 2015 race, he received 8,218 votes to Sojourner’s 8,154.