September trial likely for McDaniel election challenge
Wednesday, August 27, 2014 1:00 AM
LAUREL - A judge presiding over a lawsuit that challenges Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran's victory in a Republican primary runoff says he intends to finish the case before the November general election. But the judge is not blocking election preparation, including printing of absentee ballots for overseas military voters.
During a status conference Wednesday in the Jones County Courthouse, retired Chancellor Hollis McGehee of Lucedale acknowledged he'll be asked to consider a lot of information on a tight timeframe.
"None of us are aware of a statewide election contest that has been tried before," McGehee told about 50 spectators.
In a lawsuit filed last week in his home of Jones County, state Sen. Chris McDaniel demands that a judge declare him the Republican nominee or order a new runoff between him and Cochran. The Supreme Court assigned the case to McGehee, who was a judge from 1995 to 2005 in a different part of the state.
Certified results of the June 24 runoff show that six-term incumbent Cochran defeated the tea party-backed McDaniel by 7,667 votes.
It would be unprecedented for a court to order a do-over of a statewide election, and part of McDaniel's argument hinges on an unenforceable law. His lawsuit said Mississippi GOP officials violated the rights of real Republicans by allowing people to vote who didn't intend to support the party's nominee.
Mississippi voters are banned from participating in one party's primary and another party's runoff. McDaniel's campaign, after weeks of examining ballots and other voting records, said it found about 3,500 people who illegally voted in the June 3 Democratic primary and June 24 runoff. McDaniel said workers found about 9,500 "irregular" votes and 2,275 "improperly" cast absentee ballots, though the campaign hasn't said what made those votes irregular.
McDaniel has criticized Cochran for reaching out to black voters who traditionally support Democrats. Turnout increased from the primary to the runoff, and Cochran fared well in many majority-black precincts. McDaniel's lawsuit seeks to invalidate all June 24 GOP runoff votes in Hinds County, which is the state's largest county and is majority-black. Cochran received 18,211 votes in Hinds County to McDaniel's 7,150.
McGehee will hear arguments on pre-trial motions Aug. 28, and Cochran attorneys are expected to ask the judge to dismiss the case. McGehee said he's considering Sept 15 or Sept 22 as possible dates to start a trial.
The three-member state election commission, meanwhile, is scheduled to meet Tuesday in Jackson to set the sample ballot for the Nov. 4 general election, which will include Senate nominees. The commission is made up of the governor, the secretary of state and the attorney general. State law says the sample ballot must be given to local election officials by Sept. 10, 55 days before the general election, so officials can be ready to send absentee ballots to voters in the military.
McDaniel attorney Mitch Tyner on Wednesday asked McGehee to block Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann from preparing the November ballot. McGehee said he wouldn't do that because McDaniel didn't sue Hosemann. The judge said he would ask officials in all 82 counties to preserve ballots and other election materials from the June 3 primaries and the June 24 runoff.
Neither McDaniel nor Cochran was in court Wednesday.
"We think this is the beginning of the end, and we look forward to Sen. Cochran being proclaimed and confirmed as the nominee of the Republican Party," Cochran attorney Mark Garriga told reporters after the status conference.
In a separate interview, Tyner said he would prefer that the judge declare McDaniel the primary winner.
"But if the court finds that a new election is in order, then we would be happy to have that, as well," Tyner said.
Cochran has said he is focused on the general election against Democratic former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers and Reform Party candidate Shawn O'Hara.