BY BRIAN JONES
CALEDONIA – The Caledonia Election Commission has thrown out the results from Tuesday’s election. A new election for mayor and board of aldermen will be held, likely in July.
The move came after several confusing days that included two recounts and charges that ballots had been improperly handled.
As of Tuesday night, incumbent mayor Bill Lawrence had a two-vote lead over challenger Mitch Wiggins. The votes were recounted Wednesday morning, and that recount resulted in a tie. The votes were then counted again Wednesday evening, and that count left Lawrence the winner by one vote.
After allegations that Election Commission Chairman Ken Byars had taken the unsealed ballot box home with him Tuesday night, Wiggins lawyered up, hiring attorney Corky Smith. The election commission was meeting again Thursday at noon with the intention of performing a third recount when Smith asked the board to throw out the results due to the improperly secured ballot box.
Smith made his case to the commission at about noon.
“We are alleging numerous election law violations,” Smith said, “specifically addressed to some of those that have been done by (Byars). One instance in particular that we are very concerned with is that Mr. Byars took the ballot box home with him Tuesday night and it was unsealed. It was padlocked, but he had the key. The election commission’s power is granted to it by the legislature, and that is an exercise of an authority that has not been granted by the legislature. He had no right to take the ballot box to his house unsealed.
“That in and of itself is enough to spoil the entire election,” Smith said. “That in and of itself is an issue that has been addressed by the Mississippi Supreme Court on no less than two instances. It’s been decided. There doesn’t even need to be an accusation of fraud, just that there was an unsealed ballot box. The supreme court of Mississippi has decided that that is enough to have a new election. That is why we are here today.
“A new election would be just as fair to (Wiggins) as it would be to Mr. Lawrence,” Smith said. “A new election would insure that everyone’s vote matters, not just what was just said the next day. With the rule of law there has to be evidentiary standards. There has to be a collection of records that things have to follow. Go to circuit court. There has to be a chain of evidence to get a conviction. There has to be statutes that are followed. If the law’s not followed here, where should we follow it?
“The election commission has the power to call a full new election that will not be tainted,” he said. “It will be an election that is free and fair and the will of the people. Nothing in that ballot box, the way it sits now, is an exercise of the will of the people. That’s all we’re asking for. Let the people speak.”
Town Attorney Chris Hemphill and the four election commissioners who were present disappeared behind closed doors to talk about the situation. They were gone for about an hour and a half before they returned and Hemphill announced the decision to hold a new election. He also announced that Byars had resigned.
“Due to the concern regarding the security of the ballot box, the commission has unanimously decided to set aside this election,” Hemphill said. “Mr. Byars will tender his written resignation as election commissioner and will not participate in any further elections. That was his choice. The new election will have to be called by a vote of the mayor and board of aldermen. It has to be no sooner than 30 days after the order setting the new election, and no later than 45 days.”
Hemphill said July 18 was a potential date.
“This will not just be the mayor’s race, the aldermen are included,” Hemphill said.
The current mayor and aldermen will continue to act until the new election.