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September 18, 2008

Democrats win key ballot decision in Mississippi

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the state’s special election Senate race between Roger Wicker and Ronnie Musgrove must be placed near the top of the ballot, rendering a Republican-favored ballot burying the race at the bottom illegal.

“We find that the special election for United States Senator must be listed in the first category of the ballot, along with all other national elections, and the law assumes the Governor and Secretary of State will follow the law,” the decision reads.

The decision is a setback for Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.) and Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who designed the controversial ballot. Democrats believed that placing the race at the bottom of the ballot would significantly reduce participation in the Wicker-Musgrove race, particularly among low-income and African-American voters who generally vote Democratic.

The ballot was challenged by a county board of elections commissioner, citing state law that requires federal elections to be listed at the top of the ballot. Barbour disagreed, arguing the law doesn’t specify where off-year special elections should be placed on the ballot.

A circuit court judge upheld the objection to the ballot, prompting Barbour and Hosemann to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“The Mississippi Supreme Court could not be clearer. Races for federal office are required to be at the top of the ballot,” said Musgrove campaign manager Tim Phillips. “Now that the issue is settled we fully expect Governor Barbour and Secretary Hosemann will follow the law and fulfill their constitutional responsibility.”

The Senate seat became vacant after Trent Lott resigned last year. Barbour appointed Wicker to fill the vacancy, and called for the special election to be held in November. In accordance with Mississippi election law, party labels will not be listed beside the candidates because it is a special election.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent some money on behalf of Musgrove, believing they have a shot at picking off a GOP-held seat in the heart of the Deep South. Polls, though, have shown Wicker with a small lead.