TUPELO • State agencies are largely deferring to District Attorney John Weddle as he conducts an investigation into whether Tupelo City Councilwoman Nettie Davis violated state election laws over comments she made linking voter turnout efforts to cash raffles.
Both the Mississippi Secretary of State and the Attorney General offices said they are largely gathering information and sharing it with Weddle to aid his investigation into the matter.
“When the district attorney gets involved, he’ll handle the criminal side and the prosecutorial side,” Secretary of State Michael Watson told members of the media on Tuesday. “We’ll give him all the information that we have, and we’re ready to help as much as we can.”
Similarly, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said in a statement that the AG’s office has been in communication with Weddle regarding the matter, and they will assist as needed.
Weddle told the Daily Journal that he and his office are “actively investigating” if a crime was committed.
“It is still early. It just happened the other day,” Weddle said. “But since it is an ongoing investigation, I can’t comment further.”
In a video posted to Facebook of a June 5 campaign rally, Davis tells people gathered that if they will donate money, that money will, in turn, be raffled off to voters casting a ballot in the municipal general election.
“We’ll pull names after they have voted, and what we’ll do is give this money away the day after the voting is over,” Davis said.
Later, she indicated that raffle participants would prove that they cast a ballot by showing their “I Voted” sticker, which are distributed by poll workers at local precincts.
In the video, Davis did not describe the upcoming cash raffle as a reward to vote for any particular candidate or any particular party.
According to a state law both Watson and Weddle have cited, it is unlawful for anyone to “put up or in any way offer any prize, cash award or other item of value to be raffled, draw for, played for or contested for in order to encourage person to vote or to refrain from voting in any election.”
Violators of the law can be fined up to $5,000. The statute also provides that elected officials violating the statute may be removed from office.
In a telephone interview, Davis told the Daily Journal she was disappointed that news outlets were “smearing” her name in its coverage of her comments and accused local outlets of being “connected to the Republican Party.”
“My name is just as important to me as my life,” Davis said. “For you all to do that and not even know all the facts is upsetting.”
When asked what facts she believed news outlets were not considering, she declined to comment and referred all questions to her lawyer, Jim Waide.
Waide, a Tupelo-based attorney, said he was troubled that both the district attorney and the secretary of state would issue press releases on the eve of an election. He also advanced a number of theories attempting to show the statute in question is invalid or cannot be enforced.
He first suggested to the Daily Journal that he cannot find documentation the law was ever submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice for pre-approval when it was passed by the Legislature in 1986.
Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Mississippi was prohibited from implementing any changes in its voting laws without prior approval from the U.S. attorney general or the U.S. District Court for D.C.
However, a version of the state’s election laws on the Secretary of State’s website, contains a notation that the entire election code was newly submitted for pre-clearance in 1986, with the U.S. Attorney General offering no objections.
When asked about this notation by the Daily Journal, Waide acknowledged it does indicate pre-clearance was granted, but said he would still press the issue and seek the original paperwork if any prosecution occurs.
Additionally, Waide said he believes the statute prohibiting election-linked raffles is discriminatory in nature and could be designed to prevent African Americans from participating in an election.
Davis is not the only local figure to have suggested some kind of cash reward for voting in recent weeks.
Rev. Charles Penson, the elected leader of the municipal Democratic executive committee and a local minister, wrote in a May 29 Facebook post that several local ministers were encouraging people to absentee vote.
“Stay tuned for details on cash prizes to church with most absentee voters, church with most voters, oldest voter and youngest voter for the June 8 election,” Penson wrote.
Penson declined to answer questions about these get-out-the-vote efforts, but he told the Daily Journal that at no point did he give any money to people to encourage them to vote.
Penson said that he and other local ministers had previously discussed various ways to encourage people to vote. He declined to comment on whether or not a lottery or raffle was one of the ideas considered or implemented.
Penson said he has not yet been contacted by the district attorney’s office or the secretary of state’s office. It is unclear if Weddle or anyone else is investigating ministers for their comments on voting incentives.
In the video of the rally, leaders of the local Democratic Party are seen, including Penson and Jim Newman, the chairman of the Lee County Democratic Party. Current Mayor Jason Shelton, a Democrat, can also be seen in the video.
Both Newman and Shelton declined to comment for this story. Tyree Irving, the chair of the Mississippi Democratic Party, also did not respond to a request for a comment.
William Moore contributed to this report.