By Bobby Harrison
LAUREL – Special Judge Hollis McGehee said for the sake of Mississippi voters he plans to move quickly to resolve the election dispute in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.
“I consider them a party to this action,” said McGehee, during the initial status hearing in the challenge filed by state Sen. Chris McDaniel to the results of the June 24 runoff election he lost to six-term incumbent Thad Cochran.
McGehee scheduled a hearing for Aug. 28 for arguments on motions the Cochran campaign plans to file today.
In those motions, attorneys for Cochran are expected to claim McDaniel waited too long to file the challenge which, theoretically, could result in the matter being resolved.
Barring that, McGehee said he hopes to start the trial by Sept. 15 or Sept. 22 at the latest. He admitted that he had planned to start the trial on Sept. 30, but concluded “the scope” of a statewide challenge has led him to reconsider and determine an earlier start is needed.
“I am focused on trying to complete this matter prior to the (Nov. 4) general election,” he said during about a 30-minute hearing in the Jones County Courthouse.
The judge refused to grant a request from McDaniel attorney Mitch Tyner of Jackson that Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and the rest of the state Election Commission be ordered not to print the general election ballot until the matter is concluded.
McGehee said the law “contemplates the process going forward” as the challenge is heard. Theoretically, a decision could be made after the general election, rendering the results of the general election moot.
But the Cochran campaign has said McDaniel’s lawsuit does not have merit.
McDaniel was defeated in the June runoff by 7,667 votes out of the 392,197 cast statewide.
McDaniel claims his campaign has found about 15,000 questionable ballots statewide. But Cochran and many others say the vast majority of the questionable ballots the McDaniel campaign claims to have found are not that, but simple mistakes at the most that had no impact on the election outcome.
McDaniel also is pointing to a state law that says a person should not vote in a party primary unless the voter intends to support the party nominee in the general election. McDaniel says Cochran was able to win with the aid of Democratic voters, primarily African-Americans, who were convinced to vote for Cochran after his campaign and supporters aired racially charged ads against McDaniel.
In the past, the courts have ruled the law saying people should not vote in a primary unless they plan to support the party’s nominee in the general election was unenforceable.
Under state law, McDaniel could file the challenge in the circuit court of any county where he alleged irregularities occurred. He opted to file in his home county of Jones.
McGehee, a retired chancery judge from Lucedale, was appointed by the state Supreme Court to hear the challenge. He could move the location of the trial, but indications Wednesday were that he intended to hold it in Jones County.
Both parties praised McGehee after Wednesday’s hearing.
Mark Garriga, a Jackson attorney representing Cochran, said he was pleased McGehee was trying to settle the issue quickly.
“We think this is the beginning of the end,” Garriga said.
Tyner, representing McDaniel, said he was pleased McGehee saw the need for “a rocket docket.”
McGehee will be plowing new ground in state law, saying his research could find no prior statewide election challenge, and saying “it is overwhelming in its scope.”
Neither Cochran nor McDaniel attended the Wednesday hearing, though McDaniel’s law office is blocks away, within walking distance. About two dozen McDaniel supporters were at the courthouse for the hearing.