Sheriff election confusion

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 2, 2011

Griffin’s post election moves cause confusion

By Rupert Howell and Billy Davis

“It’s over,” Ronald McMinn, Panola County’s election commission chairman, said Tuesday.

He was referring to confirmation from the Mississippi Attorney General’s office that the Election Commission does not have authority to hold a new election once an election is certified and the 20-day deadline for contesting it has passed.

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The confirmation came after Sheriff Otis Griffin failed to file papers through official channels by Monday’s deadline to contest the results of the November 8 election in which he lost to Dennis Darby by 135 votes.

Griffin’s canvassing of affidavit and absentee ballots following the close election had caused speculation that he might contest the election.

Instead Griffin on Monday submitted to McMinn a letter listing seven reasons for a new election.

McMinn confirmed that Monday, November 28 was the last day to file notice requesting a judicial review and stated that the letter was not a proper court document — it was not notarized, certified or properly delivered.

Then on Tuesday Griffin filed a civil suit against Sheriff-elect Dennis Darby, citing irregularities during the election and stating, “…but for improper conduct,…Otis Griffin would have been winner.”

The filing asked for trial by jury and other relief including that the defendant pay attorney fees.
A canvassing, or examination of affidavit and absentee ballots, was held for two days during the past two weeks but few errors were found in the number of votes. Had enough errors been found to affect the election’s outcome, a judicial review would have been imminent.

Griffin was apparently acting on his own with Tuesday’s filing as Clarksdale attorney Bill Luckett, who represented Griffin during the canvassing, told The Panolian he was unaware of any court filings sent to the circuit clerk or to election commissioners Tuesday.

The suit filed Tuesday against Darby also listed no attorney.

Panola County Circuit Clerk Joe Reid also received a copy of Monday’s letter sent to McMinn and it was Reid who contacted the Attorney General’s office over the legal issue of properly contesting an election.

Reid had received the one-page letter from Griffin instead of the proper court filing to announce the outgoing sheriff was contesting the election.

Asked Tuesday if the document filed against Darby was requesting a judicial review, Reid responded, “I don’t know what it is.”

McMinn said to contest an election, a request for judicial review must be filed in Circuit Court through the clerk’s office.

The election commission chairman explained that unlike party primaries, the contesting of a general election is handled through a circuit judge appointed by the State Supreme Court.

Party primary reviews are held through a tribunal of the county election commissioners as was the case following the recent District 2 supervisor primary election between Vernice Avant and challenger William Pride. When Pride requested a review after he lost the election, it was conducted by Panola County election commissioners.

McMinn produced a copy of the letter at The Panolian’s request. In the notice signed by Griffin, seven reasons are listed for a new election — “none of which had to do with any ballots that I can figure out,” McMinn noted. Other election commissioners had not received a copy according to McMinn.

The election commission chairman and Reid had awaited an Attorney General’s opinion then notified election commissioners and Griffin before revealing the outcome of the letter’s request or its content. Many of the same points were listed in the suit against Defendant Darby in the Tuesday filing.

Griffin’s reasons to hold a new election included:

—Observers saw people, other than the circuit clerk, inside the courthouse for long periods of time after the request had been made to canvass the ballot boxes. This was observed during hours that the courthouse should have been closed to the public;

—Serial numbers that were placed on some ballot boxes after the Nov. 8 election did not match during the canvassing on Nov. 18 and 23;

—Voting machine malfunctions at the precincts and in the Circuit Clerk Office’s on Nov. 8;

—Intimidation by Panola County election commissioners and voters to change poll workers in predominant black precincts. It was discovered during the same meeting that Beat Four, which is predominantly white, selected only two black poll workers to work in the entire beat. There are five precincts. Three of the five precincts had all white workers.

—Concern about the increased number of votes received in Beat Four precincts where only two black poll workers were selected to work;

—Interference with the work of the Resolution Committee on November 8 from persons outside of Panola County voting area;

—Opponent’s campaign manager and workers were allowed to work on election day as poll workers.

Sheriff Griffin did not respond to phone calls seeking his comments for this story.