Leaders working out details for new elections in Canton; no officials held in contempt
CANTON, Miss. (WLBT) - Madison County election officials are in the clear when it comes to potential contempt of court charges, following a hearing Tuesday.
Senior Status Judge Jeff Weill lifted a show cause order he placed on the county, days after it appeared the election commission and circuit clerk had refused to comply with his earlier order requiring them to oversee new elections in Canton.
On July 1, Weill ordered new elections in Canton’s Ward 2 and Ward 5 Democratic primaries.
He also ordered the county’s elected officials to preside over the races.
However, he backed off that stance on Tuesday, after city and county officials agreed to hammer out how the upcoming elections would be handled.
“We all are here to see, ultimately, that the election gets (done properly),” he said.
Attorneys for the Madison County Election Commission, the Madison County Board of Supervisors, Madison County circuit clerk and the city of Canton met for more than an hour prior to discuss plans court adjourning around 11 a.m.
Board of Supervisors Attorney Mike Espy said he was pleased with the progress made during that discussion but said no agreement had been reached.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” he said.
Attorneys hope to reach an agreement sometime next week.
Weill ordered the new elections in Ward 2 and Ward 5 days ago, after candidates Fred Esco and Tim Taylor challenged their election losses in court.
New elections in those races are slated for August 17.
As part of his ruling, Weill ordered that the county, not the city, preside over the races.
Meanwhile, the Canton Municipal Election Commission (CMEC) has doubled down on its decision not to certify the 2021 general election.
Under a separate show-cause order issued last week, Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson gave Canton’s elections board until July 13 to certify the results or tell his office why they would not. He threatened legal action to compel members to do so if they did not comply.
Mayor William Truly also sought the court’s help in compelling commissioners to certify the general election results and On July 13, Circuit Judge Steve Ratcliff denied that request.
In a separate filing made on the same day, Truly asked the court for a summary judgment in his legal battle with Chip Matthews. Both candidates have asked that the court declare them mayor.
Matthews says Truly shouldn’t have been allowed to run because the Democratic party never submitted a ballot. Truly, meanwhile, says he won the election with 60 percent of the vote.
For its part, the CMEC tells Watson it can’t sign off on the results because “irregularities in the voting process are of such magnitude to call into question the will of the voters.”
Further, members say the secretary’s order to show cause excluded Ward 2 and Ward 5, due to the court-ordered special election, “but the problems that necessitated a special election in those wards pervaded elsewhere.”
The letter points out the controversy surrounding two municipal Democratic committees, as well as the fact that the judge had deemed one of the committees to be illegal. Members also question whether the candidates qualified by that committee could even appear on the ballot.
Additionally, CMEC “discovered a problem with the ballot form itself and the presence of a ‘second’ unauthorized ballot form that causes further doubt on the election results.”
At least two ballots were used in the general election, one that listed Chip Matthews, the Republican mayoral candidate, first, and one that listed William Truly, the Democratic incumbent, first.
This matters because the ballot-counting machines only register the circles that are filled in, not the names beside them.
In other words, if a machine is programmed to count all top circles for a particular candidate, but a person casts a vote for them when his or her name is listed second, the other candidate would get the vote.
Matthews claims there were numerous copies of both ballots. Truly denies that claim, saying only two ballots were printed that listed his name above Matthews’.
City Clerk Debra Brown signed an affidavit saying that the ballots were printed for the absentee voting and had previously been uploaded into the Secretary of State’s SEMS system by Madison County Circuit Clerk Anita Wray. Brown says in her affidavit that those ballots were not scanned by the city’s vote-counting machines.
CMEC also points out that the 2021 elections spawned numerous lawsuits, several of which are still pending:
- Natwassie Truly and William Truly Jr. vs. John Scanlan et al. (settled)
- Rodriquez Brown vs. Colby Walker et al. (ongoing)
- Timothy Taylor vs. John Brown (settled)
- Fred Esco Jr. vs. Canton Democratic Municipal Executive Committee et al. (settled)
- Charles E. Matthews Jr. vs. William Truly Jr. (ongoing)
- William Truly Jr. vs. Canton Mississippi Election Commission et al. (petition denied)
In a June 19 letter to Watson, the three-member commission said it would not certify the results in light of Weill’s June 15 ruling, which nullified the results of the Democratic primary and determined the group that oversaw the primaries had been illegally formed.
The commission initially informed the secretary that it would certify the election results in all but the three aldermen races that are being challenged. However, by June 24, the panel changed course and decided to hold off on certifying any of the general election results.
Espy filed an 18-page response to Weill’s order, saying that the county has already fulfilled its statutory duty with regard to the city’s primary, general and upcoming special elections.
“The Madison County only has statutory authority in this court-ordered municipal special primary election to maintain the voter role, which the election commission did as required in January earlier this year,” he wrote. “The... commission did everything it was legally authorized to do and should not be held in contempt for any action it cannot legally take.”
The county has been attempting to distance itself from the Canton elections for months. This spring, the Canton Board of Aldermen approved asking the board of supervisors to take over their elections, citing problems with the 2017 vote.
Supervisors directed Espy to seek an opinion from the attorney general to determine if the county could hire a private firm to run the elections. The AG has yet to issue an opinion in the case.
Espy also argued that Weill’s order was too vague for the commission or circuit clerk to follow.
While the county says it cannot legally conduct city elections in most cases, Espy said the judge did not offer any applicable law that would allow them to preside over the races.
Said Espy, “If the county elected officials were supposed to do anything beyond making the determination that the law does not allow them to conduct the … special election primary, no further action was specified in the order.”
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