JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A 3 On Your Side investigation into Mississippi’s election laws reveals a lack of enforcement and transparency governing candidates that run for municipal and county offices, leaving those voters far more vulnerable to potential corruption than those who run for statewide office.
The lack of checks and balances appears to allow county candidates the ability to qualify for office and break state law at the same time.
“Changing election laws is almost harder than changing deer hunting laws," says Pete Perry, chairman of the Hinds County Republican Party.
For the last 15 years, he’s witnessed firsthand how Mississippi’s election laws function.
“There’s a world of things that could be dealt with. Campaign finance, that’s an easy one. It’s an easy one to see," Perry said.
It’s not an easy violation to catch, though, because of the way state law is written.
Earlier this month, a 3 On Your Side investigation into residency concerns surrounding David Archie, the Democratic nominee for Hinds County supervisor, revealed something else: he didn’t file a single campaign finance report all year, missing five key deadlines.
State law says in part that “no candidate shall be certified as nominated for election or as elected to office until he or she files all reports required by this article that are due as of the date of certification.”
Archie, through a court filing, denies that he failed to file any campaign finance report, but 3 On Your Side indepdently confirmed that fact through the Hinds County Circuit Clerk’s office.
How did Archie slide through without filing a single campaign finance report?
Jacquie Amos, chairman of the Hinds County Democratic Executive Committee, said it’s because nobody lets them know when a candidate fails to file.
“We do not get campaign finance reports. They’re filed with the circuit clerk’s office. We would have no way of knowing," Amos said.
To Amos’ point, state law doesn’t require a circuit clerk’s office to report to that county’s executive committee when someone misses a filing deadline.
“I know from the state level, because the secretary of state’s office sends me notifications when our statewide candidates are late or have not filed, but I don’t get that information -- I’ve never received that information from the circuit clerk’s office.”
That’s unusual, too.
The Secretary of State’s Office tells 3 On Your Side there is no legal requirement for the circuit clerk’s office to notify the Secretary of State or the Mississippi Ethics Commission when a candidate fails to file a campaign finance report.
The only enforcement comes for candidates who file with the Secretary of State's Office.
If they miss a filing deadline, the Secretary of State lets the Mississippi Ethics Commission know, and the commission decides how that candidate should be penalized according to law.
Amos told us the Secretary of State doesn’t send reports on county candidates to her.
The agency confirmed that as well, saying it is not obligated by law to provide that.
However, Amos says the law requires the executive committee to act based on that information.
“It should be something that we’re given. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone ever say or tell me that a candidate has not filed their campaign finance reports on the county level,” Amos said.
Both Amos and Perry say it’s the candidate’s responsibility to be honest, similar to an honor system.
If a candidate doesn’t file, they get fined.
In Archie’s case, that’s $50 per day per missed deadline -- up to ten days per deadline.
That means $500 for each deadline he failed to file.
However, if he pays the money and turns in those missing reports, all’s forgiven.
“I think [candidates are] well aware of [these holes], and they’re well aware of the lack of enforcement. They’re well aware of the lack of penalties and a lot of them would rather not disclose the information and take that chance and say, well, I’ll pay the fine and file a report when it’s all over with. That means they got elected without having the transparency of knowing who was behind them," Perry said.
If a candidate circumvents the laws by failing to file, however, and misrepresents themselves by not filing those documents, how can one trust that candidate to be honest when they’re actually in office?
“I think that’s a fair statement. The problem with it is that same candidates they’ve done that and they turn around get a majority of the votes. How can you trust the voting public to make informed decisions?” Perry said.
It’s a prime example, Amos believes, of why election laws need to be revised.
“I’m going to tell you, they really need to be revamped because we run into issues all over the state," Amos said. "We have issues dealing with split precincts. We’ve got a couple of precincts that’s got, you know, four or five different splits.”
What’s the biggest obstacle to getting election law strengthened?
According to Perry, the lawmakers themselves.
“There’s the same 50 bills, 48 of which are gonna die every year, but what happens is when you start talking about election law, people want to get into the partisan issue, early voting versus none or felons voting. All these things get into policy questions rather than just the real process of conducting the elections and making sure they’re fair," Perry said.
Those concerns, Perry says, are something both Republicans and Democrats agree on.
“They oughta have every legislator have to serve as a poll worker in here if their name’s not on the ballot so they can learn how all these laws don’t work the way they write them," Perry said.
A 3 On Your Side analysis of all bills introduced during the 2019 Legislative Session reveals 104 related to election law.
Of those, only three passed and were subsequently approved by Gov. Phil Bryant.