By Mark Listes

The loser in this month’s Mississippi primary runoff for a U.S. Senate seat, state Senator Chris McDaniel (R), intends to challenge the June 2 primary runoff in Mississippi won by his opponent, Senator Thad Cochran (R).

Mississippi state Senator Chris McDaniel (R) is challenging the results of a primary runoff with U.S. Senator Thad Cochran. Photo by Jonathan Bachman | ReutersChallenging a primary in Mississippi, however, is a process that can be lengthy, complicated and expensive. McDaniel will have to inspect ballots in up to 82 counties and comply with a state executive committee’s investigation. Then he may have to go to court in two separate hearings in two separate courts, and pay for his attorneys and additional attorneys that are required by the process. McDaniel, however, is still confident that he can overturn the election.

So, what exactly will the challenge look like?

It starts with the ballots. McDaniel and his team are currently inspecting ballots for irregularities that might indicate voter fraud. To gain access to the ballots, McDaniel first notified Cochran and the circuit clerk that he or his representative will be examining the ballots. Once all parties are notified, ballots are unsealed, inspected by McDaniel or his representative under supervision, and then immediately resealed. This process can be lengthy.

If, after inspecting the ballots, McDaniel believes he has grounds for a challenge, his next step would be to file a complaint with the chairman of the GOP’s state executive committee. The committee then orders the contested county committees to conduct investigations, and upon receiving the results of these investigations, the executive committee votes on whether or not to uphold the results of the runoff. This ruling is binding, but it can be appealed to the courts. This appeals process is where things get interesting.

Exemplifying the gravitas of election disputes, an appellant must not only demonstrate legal grounds for an appeal but also employ attorneys to independently investigate the election and the challenge. Only if two attorneys from two separate firms are willing to attest to the legitimacy of an appeal will an appellant have access to a court for a further appeal.

This court is unique. There is no jury. Instead, there is a judge selected by the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court. The judge sits with five advisers, GOP executive committee commissioners. Also, Mississippi law pressures the hearings to be finished and decided in enough time for the general election in November. This is about three and a half months from now, and McDaniel is still investigating ballots.

The appointed judge takes the commissioners’ opinions into consideration, but makes the ruling alone. Once made, the ruling can be appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The court may then choose to hear the case, and if there was sufficient disagreement between the commissioners over the facts of the case during the first court hearing, it may even review the facts of the case. A ruling from the Mississippi Supreme Court is the final word on a challenge under Mississippi law.

The take away: If McDaniel wants to challenge the election as far as possible, he faces a steep bill. He already had to loan his own campaign $100,000.

Mark Listes is an intern in NCSL’s Elections Program.


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