JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Local election officials consulted with the Mississippi secretary of state's office before deciding to count nine votes at the center of a disputed House race, an attorney for five-term Democratic Rep. Bo Eaton said in papers filed Friday.
The votes in the Nov. 3 election could determine who will hold the District 79 seat for the next four years representing Smith and Jasper counties, and whether Republicans will gain a supermajority in the Mississippi House.
Eaton's attorney, John Corlew, wrote in the filing with the House that the nine votes were properly counted because they were cast by District 79 residents in Smith County. He wrote that the nine people voted by affidavit after being were told their names did not appear on poll books.
"Any error was not that of the voter in his or her registration in that jurisdiction," Corlew wrote. "The error was committed, in some cases, by the computer system maintained by the secretary of state to record registered voters in each county of the state."
Eaton won a Nov. 20 tiebreaker in a drawing of straws, and Corlew says Eaton should remain the winner of the race.
Republican challenger Mark Tullos of Raleigh says the nine votes should not have been counted and the race should not have been tied at 4,589 votes each.
Tullos filed a petition Nov. 19 asking the House to seat him as the winner. A committee appointed by Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn will consider the election dispute after the Legislature begins work in January.
If Tullos eventually wins, Republicans would have a three-fifths supermajority in the 122-member House, and the GOP could pass tax bills without consulting Democrats.
Tullos said in his petition that the Smith County Election Commission met secretly Nov. 9, in violation of state law, to discuss affidavit ballots that had previously been rejected.
In Eaton's response, Corlew disputed that the affidavits had previously been rejected. Corlew admitted that the Smith County Election Commission did not give advance notice of its Nov. 9 meeting, when minutes show the members discussed the affidavits in a phone conversation with attorney Kimberly Turner, the assistant secretary of state for elections.
Corlew also admitted that the commission also did not give advance notice of its Nov. 10 meeting, when the affidavits were counted. But he said Tullos attended that meeting and did not raise questions about the ballots. Corlew wrote that Tullos asked to examine the ballots but didn't do it.
Tullos wrote in his petition that the envelopes containing the nine affidavit ballots were opened before Nov. 10, making it impossible to tell whether the votes were properly cast.