Griffin Takes Oath

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 3, 2010

Catherine Shegog embraces newly installed Panola County Sheriff Otis Griffin shortly after he was sworn in by Circuit Judge Andrew Baker in the Panola County Courthouse in Batesville on Thursday. Baker said it was a “historic occasion” for Panola County. Griffin is thought to be the first county-wide African American elected official. The Panolian photo by Rupert Howell

Griffin takes oath as canvassing kicks off

By Billy Davis and Rupert Howell

The examination of ballot boxes, and the swearing-in of a new county sheriff, took place under the same roof Thursday in Batesville at the Panola County Courthouse.

Mississippi election law allows a losing candidate to examine, or “canvas,” the ballot boxes under the supervision of the county circuit clerk.

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The examination of ballot boxes on behalf of sheriff’s candidate Dennis Darby was progressing slowly Thursday morning, when a reporter witnessed the canvassing.

Canvassing typically means a candidate scrutinizes absentee ballots and affidavit ballots, hoping to find irregularities.

Darby lost to Otis Griffin in the Nov. 23 runoff with 435 votes of more than 13,000 votes cast separating the winner and loser.

The runoff recorded 1,222 absentee ballots and 118 affidavit ballots.

Canvassing began Thursday morning when Circuit Clerk Joe Reid provided the Darby campaign with access to election boxes from “North Batesville B,” the voting precinct at the Patton Lane Community Center.

The circuit clerk had set up the canvassing in the county boardroom, located far down the hallway from the swearing-in ceremony for Griffin in the courtroom.

Griffin, 54, was sworn in as Panola County sheriff at 2 p.m. by Circuit Judge Andrew C. Baker.

The swearing-in meant Griffin dropped the “interim” label 14 months after he was appointed interim sheriff by the Panola County Board of Supervisors.

Circuit Judge Andy Baker said it was a “historic occassion” for Panola County before he began administering the oath of office to Panola County’s first county-wide African American elected official.

Over 200 supporters and well wishers swamped Griffin afterward congratulating him and having their picture made with him.

Four hours before that event, a reporter was present when Darby campaign volunteers looked for voting irregularities on absentee ballots and related materials, such as the ballot envelope.

Two other volunteers were moving through poll book names and comparing the names to a permanent registry.  

Darby campaign worker Bobby Reed of Batesville was overseeing the examination of ballots.

Darby was not present for the mid-morning canvassing, but Griffin moved in and out of the boardroom throughout the morning.  

Darby campaign volunteers Mike Creel, Cindy Roper and Dee Ruhl were also examining the ballots, and Sandra Martindale and Lyda Jo Vick were reviewing the voter rolls.

Senatobia attorney Leigh Ann Darby, who is advising the Darby campaign, was present for a portion of the canvassing of the Patton Lane box.

Griffin had positioned two observers, Robert Lee and CC Cauthen, at the boardroom table as the Darby volunteers scrutinized absentee ballots across from them.  

The appearance of Batesville resident Edith Cole caused the only ripple of the morning.

Cole’s name had been announced as the witness on multiple absentee envelopes, leading Reed to state that all those ballots should be stacked together for closer examination.

Cole, who lives in the Patton Lane area, is known by public officials for holding political sway in west Batesville, and candidates often request her help during elections.

Ruhl, who is from Como, repeatedly noticed Cole’s signature and was seemingly unaware of her political stature.

“Who is Edith Cole?” Ruhl asked to nobody in particular.

“She’s a lady in the neighborhood everybody knows,” Cauthen replied.

Cole entered the boardroom minutes later, just as a reporter was asking Ruhl to clarify an earlier comment about Cole’s signature on a ballot envelope.

Cole, apparently hearing her name, strolled up to Ruhl, too.

“You’re not part of the canvassing,” the circuit clerk told Cole and told her to leave.

She did so, and Lee confessed a minute later that he had contacted Cole after her name was mentioned during the canvassing.

“I didn’t bring the lady in here,” Ruhl told Reid. “I’m not here to question anyone.”