Following an investigative report by the Daily Journal, it is quite clear that the Lee County Circuit Clerk’s office applied an inconsistent standard in verifying signatures on a petition seeking to require voter approval for a bond issue that would allow supervisors to borrow up to $85 million to build a new jail and justice center and make additional improvements to county buildings.
After affidavits were considered, the petition still fell about 20 verified signatures short of the required 1,500 needed to force a ballot initiative. However, our review found well in excess of 20 names that — if not disallowed for absolutely no discernible reason — were not verified for reasons overlooked with other signatures or for unclear reasons that even the circuit clerk did not supply ample rationale.
In several instances of rejected signatures, the names and addresses on the petition match the voter file, and the signature clearly matches the name, yet the circuit clerk's office not only marked it as illegible but also stood by that finding when shown examples by the Daily Journal.
In other instances, names and signatures such as “Josh” or “Will” were rejected because the name on the voter role was “Joshua” or “William.”
Then there were people rejected because they used their middle name on the petition, even in instances where their full name was on the voter role, making it easy to identify them as the correct voter.
Lee County Attorney Gary Carnathan all but acknowledged that the standard was inconsistent. Supervisor Phil Morgan called into question some of the rejections. Lawyers considered experts in Mississippi election law argued many of the names struck were done so for illogical reasons. And multiple attorney general opinions provide guidance in verifying voter petitions, guidance that was ignored by the circuit clerk’s office.
We have been clear that we believe a bond issue of this magnitude, which could lead to a sizable tax increase for county residents, should be set before the voters. It is not that we do not believe a new jail is needed, but that voter scrutiny and approval, in something of this magnitude, will make for a better project.
But after seeing how unevenly and inconsistently the verification process was handled by the circuit clerk’s office, we do not see how supervisors can, in good conscious, move forward with the circuit clerk’s decision to reject the petition.
Carnathan has said supervisors have the final say in whether to accept or reject the petition. They should accept it.
Then there is the issue of what appears to be a sloppy job by the circuit clerk’s office. The uneven standard is indefensible. Supervisors should question why more care was not given to this responsibility and how such glaring mistakes could have been made.
While petition drives are not an everyday part of their work, it is also not an overly complicated task. We should both expect and demand better.