State officials’ disagreement causes chaos in election qualification process

Fitch and WatsonOfficials' disagreement causes chaos NEMiss.News
Attorney General Lynn Fitch and Secretary of State Michael Watson
February 5th, 2021     Government & Politics

 

With less than a day left in which to qualify to run for municipal office, state officials have thrown the process into chaos.

Secretary of State Michael Watson and Attorney General Lynn Fitch are at odds over whether a candidate for alderman representing a single ward must have been a resident of that ward for at least the past two years.

So far, the controversy has not disqualified any local candidates in Union County, but has proved a source of considerable confusion for officials here.

The origin of the controversy is a law passed by the legislature that took effect Jan. 1, 2020.

It states that any candidate for any municipal, county or county district office “shall be a resident of the municipality, county, county district or other territory that he or she seeks to represent in such office for two years immediately preceding the day of the election.” The emphasis on “other territory” is added.

One of the secretary of state’s duties is to oversee elections.

Until this past week, all election information from the secretary of state’s office has presumed the two-year requirement did not apply to wards and that a candidate for alderman only had to have been a resident of the municipality for two years.

Watson has said this was based on information provided from the attorney general’s office.

However, this past week an attorney for the Oktibbeha Board of Supervisors requested an opinion from the AG on the law concerning the office of supervisor. The opinion included the statement that the phrase “or other territory that he or she seeks to represent in such office” includes wards as well as supervisors’ districts.

Again, this does not appear to disqualify any local candidates, but the answer is not clear.

Also, the law does not seem to spell out what constitutes proof of residency, nor is it absolute concerning whose responsibility making that determination is.

Section 23-15-300 says a candidate “shall prove in his or her qualifying information that he or she meets the applicable residency requirement or provide absolute proof, subject to no contingencies, that he or she will meet the residency requirement on or before the date of the election…”

That places the initial burden on the candidate.

However, the law also says it is up to the appropriate election official or executive committee to review whether the candidate meets the residency requirement.

If the official or committee determines the candidate does not meet residency requirements that body is obligated to offer the candidate a hearing at a reasonable time. If the candidate does not show up or prove appropriate residency, the name will not appear on the ballot.

Determining residency in a city the size of New Albany is not usually a problem because people are well enough known to officials as to how long they have been there. However, this can be a problem for someone who does not own property or is unable to provide tax or utility bill records.

Another problem is that New Albany does not maintain a standing election commission or municipal political party executive committees throughout the years. They are only needed every four years and then only for a brief time.

It is not clear that those bodies have been fully named in New Albany yet. Technically, it is the two political parties that hold the primaries, not the city, because their goal is to select party nominees for the general election.

Technically also, the municipal election commission holds the general election, not the city governing officials.

New Albany Municipal Clerk Frankie Roberts has been following procedures set forth by the secretary of state throughout the qualifying period. The attorney general’s opinion does not technically apply to New Albany anyway, but she is concerned that everything be done correctly.

The controversy does not affect the Town of Myrtle or Village of Blue Springs at all, because their aldermen are elected at-large.

For now, New Albany officials are continuing to abide by the secretary of state’s procedures and essentially waiting to see whose opinion ultimately wins in Jackson.

It is likely some candidates elsewhere may be disqualified thanks to the ruling, though, and the entire situation may play out in court.

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