TUPELO • With the deadline to qualify for the upcoming municipal elections just days away, Mississippi’s chief legal agency has released a last-minute opinion that could cut short some campaigns before they even begin, drawing the ire of Mississippi’s top election official.
The office of Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch on Monday released an official opinion offering the view that, under a 2019 law, candidates running for ward offices in city government must have been a resident of the ward they’re looking to represent for at least two years. This clashes with a view some municipal clerks and the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office have taken of the new law.
“Candidates for a municipal ward office, in a municipality with a population of 1,000 or more, according to the latest federal decennial census, must have been a resident of the ward they seek to serve for a minimum of two years prior to the date of the election,” the opinion reads.
Secretary of State Michael Watson in a statement to the Daily Journal said that his office has conducted hours of municipal training based on advice from Fitch’s office, “which includes a video produced by the AG’s Office indicating the two-year residency requirement did not apply to wards, and fielded hundreds of questions about the municipal residency requirement.”
“We are all extremely concerned about the impact this will have on candidates who have spent their time, money and other resources on campaigns that will come to a screeching halt due to this opinion,” Watson said. “The timing of this opinion, issued just days before the qualifying deadline, is inexcusable.”
The last day for candidates to qualify to run for municipal office is Friday.
Watson added that his office is currently notifying municipal officials and candidates of the recent opinion, some of whom did not know about the new opinion on Wednesday afternoon.
Both the municipal clerks in Oxford and Tupelo said that have operated on the understanding that candidates seeking a ward-level office were only required to have lived in the municipality as a whole for two years, but were not necessarily required to have lived in the ward they hope to represent for that amount of time.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Kim Hanna, Tupelo’s city clerk, said the new opinion has yet to disqualify any candidates. One candidate has been asked to provide additional proof of residency.
Ashley Atkinson, the municipal clerk for the city of Oxford, was unaware of the recent opinion until contacted by the Daily Journal on Wednesday. Like Hanna, Atkinson’s view was informed by training sessions conducted by the Secretary of State’s office.
The attorney general’s opinion was requested by Rob Roberson, board attorney to the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors. It is not immediately clear why Roberson asked for the attorney general to weigh in on the matter.
The legal confusion stems from a bill passed by the Mississippi Legislature and signed into law by the governor in 2019 that required candidates for county and city government to have lived in the county or city they wished to represent for at least two years prior to the date of the election.
Before the law change, local candidates were only required to be registered voters in the district, county or city they wished to represent.
Watson told the Daily Journal that state Sen. Kevin Blackwell, who authored the original 2019 bill, attempted to amend the law in 2020 to clarify whether the two-year requirement applied to wards.
The bill died in committee, according to Watson.
Opinions of the Attorney General are only advisory and are not legally binding. They do allow public bodies protection against civil or criminal liability if they follow the direction of the opinion.