Hattiesburg's mayoral election sparks election reform act

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Inside the Forrest County Court house Friday, State Representative Toby Barker, backed by fellow lawmakers, laid out a plan to make some change to current election law, all because of what played out in a courtroom upstairs just six months ago.

"We are not hear to rehash a very dark and divisive chapter in our city's history. However, we are here to begin a dialog and solve a problem," said Barker, a republican from Hattiesburg.

Hattiesburg's recent mayoral election was put under a microscope after allegations of voter fraud and big concerns over absentee ballots. A judge then ordered a special election and even it came with a lot of controversy, mainly because of absentee ballots.

"The legislature needs to take a look at the absentee laws and other municipal election laws to help clear this up," said Barker.

To help clear it all up, Barker is filling a bill in the legislature called the Municipal Election Reform Act of 2014. It comes with four key components. The first would be the date of the general election. The bill would move it from June, to May in an effort to increase voter turnout. The second would require all absentee ballots to stay in the city clerks office instead of being sent to precincts. The third would deem any vehicle used in curb side voting as a polling precinct. That would mean anyone in the vehicle other than the voter, would have to get out. Finally, the bill would require absentee ballot requests to be processed within two business days.

At this point this bill only pertains to municipal elections but Barker says he's open to including county and state elections as well. As the bill makes it's way through the legislative process, Barker says he's not ruling out any amendments either.

While Barker says the bill won't create a perfect process, it's at least a good start. Senators John Polk and Billy Hudson, both republicans, say they'll help shepard it through the senate.

"I think Hattiesburg, in the last two elections, the one we had that was regular and the one ordered by the court proved one thing. That is, if something can go wrong, it went wrong," said Polk of Hattiesburg.

"We're going to try to make it so we'll never have again a lawsuit over a city election in Hattiesburg," said Hudson of Hattiesburg.

The bill is currently getting some final touches before it's filed on Monday.