OXFORD • As litigation over unclear residency requirements awaits a ruling from the state’s highest court, Oxford’s election commission on Tuesday night certified a candidate for June's general election despite previous eligibility concerns.
The commission voted this week to certify Afton Thomas, the Democratic candidate for the board’s Ward 2 seat.
Commissioners previously questioned whether she should appear on the ballot because she had not lived in the ward she’s hoping to represent for at least two years. A recent opinion from Attorney General Lynn Fitch's office states that a 2019 election law requires candidates for municipal office to live in both the ward and municipality they wish to represent for at least that amount of time.
Although Thomas has lived in the city of Oxford for longer than the required time, she has not lived in Ward 2 for two years.
An opinion from the attorney general’s office is not legally binding, so the decision to follow its advice is largely left up to local political parties and individual election commissions.
Oxford’s election commission previously delayed certifying Afton for the general election until they received more election training. But Ashley Atkinson, municipal clerk in Oxford, said that the commission “erred on the side of caution,” and decided to certify Thomas for the general election pending the outcome of an appeal that is being considered before the Mississippi Supreme Court involving the residency requirement.
Thomas said a member of the commission initially emailed her to inform her the commission would conduct Wednesday morning hearing to discuss her eligibility. She later heard from a commission member on Tuesday evening that she'd been certified during a different meeting that evening.
In an interview with the Daily Journal, Thomas said she was excited and relieved to learn she will appear on the ballot.
“I’m thankful that they were able to discuss it on their own,” she said of the commission’s decision.
Mark Huelse, Thomas’ Republican opponent, told the Daily Journal in a statement that he does not intend to file an election challenge over the commission’s decision.
“I am running my positive campaign based on our accomplishments over the past four years and our vision to move Oxford forward,” Huelse said.
The decision by the election commission comes as the state’s highest court is poised to weigh on the residency issue and decide whether Fitch’s interpretation of the law is correct.
Circuit Judge Jeff Weill in a ruling over an election contest in D’Iberville last month sharply criticized the recent opinion from Fitch’s office as “not based in logic or on the law.”
He criticized the opinion offered by Fitch’s office as improperly relying upon videotaped legislative debate as its “only legal basis” and failing to offer “any analysis of the specific text at issue.”
A judge who presided over an election challenge in Pass Christian invoking the two-year residency requirement ruled that the candidate did meet the legal requirements to run for public office, but he did not say whether he thought the attorney general’s opinion was a correct interpretation of the law.
In an election contest in Hattiesburg, a judge ruled that the candidate whose eligibility in question was merely not a resident of the municipality when he qualified to run for office and ordered that the candidate’s name be removed from the ballot. Because the candidate did not meet the municipality residency requirement, the judge did not weigh in on the residency requirement related to wards.
In another election contest in Hattiesburg over the residency issue, a judge ruled that because Hattiesburg operates under a special form of government, which sets out a specific residency requirement, that the candidate was qualified to run for office.
It is unclear when the state supreme court will issue a ruling on the D’Iberville case, but the parties involved in the litigation have not yet submitted any brief to the court for consideration.