Democrat Jackson-McCray should keep District 40 seat, special House committee recommends

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Hester Jackson-McCray, right, sits next to her lawyer as he prepares to speak on her behalf during a hearing at the State Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 29. 2020.

A special House Election Committee voted unanimously Wednesday night to recommend to the full House to seat Hester Jackson-McCray as the representative for District 40 in DeSoto County.

Jackson-McCray, a Democrat, was certified as the winner of the Nov. 5 election by 14 votes, but Republican incumbent Ashley Henley challenged the election outcome, asking the House to overturn the results and hold a new election or declare her the winner.

The special committee, appointed by Speaker Philip Gunn, heard more than two hours of arguments from the two parties Wednesday night before making the recommendation that Jackson-McCray be seated.

Jackson-McCray had expressed confidence from the beginning that the Republican-dominated House would seat her. After the committee voted Wednesday night, she said she was ready “to get to work for the people who sent me down here.”

The committee only makes a recommendation. It will be up to the full House to make the final decision in the coming days. But Rep. Rob Roberson, R-Starkville, the chair of the committee, said “more than likely our recommendation will be taken.”

The state Constitution gives the Legislature the authority to decide election contests involving its members. Jackson-McCray has been serving as the House District 40 legislator since the 2020 session began on Jan. 7 as the election challenge has been pending.

Jackson-McCray has been touted as the first African American woman to win a white majority legislative district, though, there is some evidence that the demographics of the DeSoto County district might have changed significantly and it is now a minority majority district.

Still, DeSoto is predominantly Republican and Republican Circuit Clerk Dale Thompson and Election Commission Chair Danny Klein said that there were no substantial irregularities with the election.

“I would say the will of the voters was carried out,” Klein told the committee members. “It was hard fought. Just like a good game, you hate to see either side lose when it is that close.”

Jackson-McCray won by 14 votes.

Henley challenged a litany of items, including the residency of 11 voters, saying they did not live in the district.

“Where you vote is where you reside,” Henley said.

Thompson said all of the voters except one was registered as residents of District 40. Jackson-McCray said the issue with the one voter not found is that he might have signed the poll receipt book in a manner not consistent with how he registered to vote.

Regardless, Jackson attorney Sam Begley, who represented Jackson-McCray, said Henley could not identify enough voters to overturn the results.

Henley, who was seeking her second term representing DeSoto County, represented herself in the hearing. She also challenged some absentee ballots and the lack of signatures or quality of signatures on an electronic voter roll. State law requires voters to sign a physical book. DeSoto County takes the additional step of having voters also do an electronic sign-in, though, in some instances some of the poll workers do not take that additional step, Klein said.

The important issue, Begley said, is that Klein said the number of ballots cast matched the number of people signing the physical voter receipt book.

“This is not our first rodeo,” Klein told the committee of the running of the election. The committee consists of four Republicans and one Democrat.