Lauren Smith addresses an audience attending the Mississippi Department of Education public comment hearing about proposed revisions to the state's academic standards for social studies, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, at the Mississippi Agricultural Museum in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

TUPELO — A Tupelo defense attorney recently subpoenaed Lauren Smith, a candidate running for the state Legislature, to testify in a criminal case involving a Democratic member of the Tupelo City Council for allegedly violating an election statute. 

Documents filed in Lee County Circuit Court show Jim Waide, attorney for Tupelo Councilwoman Nettie Davis, subpoenaed Smith, a Republican candidate for a state Senate district in Lee County, to testify at Davis’ Aug. 14 criminal trial. 

Waide declined to comment on the subpoena, but he has previously told the Daily Journal he strongly objects to District Attorney John Weddle’s efforts to prosecute Davis, a civil rights veteran, over allegedly violating a somewhat obscure election law. 

A  grand jury indicted Davis in 2021 after a video surfaced of her soliciting donations for a raffle intended to award cash prizes to people who voted in the city of Tupelo’s municipal general election. 

Weddle, a Republican, alleges Davis’s comments violated a law that prohibits anyone from offering “any prize, cash award or other items of value to be raffled, drawn for, played for or contested for in order to encourage a person to vote or to refrain from voting in any election.”

The video did not record Davis advocating for any specific candidate or a particular political party.

The penalty for violating the statute is only a misdemeanor and carries no jail time. But the stakes for Davis politically are much higher because the law calls for sitting public officials to be removed from office if convicted.

While state prosecutors are preparing to take Davis’ case to trial, an attorney specializing in election law and Smith’s opponent, incumbent Sen. Chad McMahan, believe the Senate candidate appears to have admitted on video to also skirting an election law. 

Smith testified before the Mississippi Republican Party Executive Committee in a Feb. 16 hearing that she has lived in the northern Mississippi town of Saltillo since at least 2018. However, she voted at a Tupelo business address for part of that time.

Her public voting record shows she voted under the Tupelo address, located in a different Senate district, in the 2020 presidential election and the 2022 congressional primary election. Still, Smith, at the hearing, insisted she lived in Saltillo during that time.  

“I want to point out that I might have used the address to vote outside of my district, but it was merely a place of convenience,” Smith said at the hearing. “It was where we had a sawmill, we had our place of business.” 

State law requires Mississippians to register to vote in the precinct where they live, and section 97-13-35 of the Mississippi Code states anyone “who shall vote out of the district of his legal domicile” shall, upon conviction, be imprisoned in the county jail for no more than one year or be fined no more than $1,000, or both.

Smith denies the allegation she committed voter fraud or violated any of the state’s election laws, though she does not dispute she voted under the Tupelo address while she lived in Saltillo. 

Smith told Mississippi Today she did not know why Waide, a longtime criminal defense attorney, subpoenaed her, but she will “gladly go” to court and testify.

It’s unclear why Waide is seeking Smith’s appearance in court, but he could be attempting to paint a picture that state prosecutors in the area are selectively prosecuting certain cases of election law violations and ignoring others. 

Weddle also declined to comment on the subpoena, though he could, in theory, file a motion with the court objecting to Smith’s testimony. 

A district attorney’s office typically does not handle misdemeanor offenses, though Weddle ultimately decided to present Davis’ case to a grand jury. 

Weddle has not issued any public statement about Smith’s scenario, but two days after the video of Davis’ raffle comments circulated online, he issued a statement saying he would investigate the video thoroughly. 

“I take election fraud seriously, and I am dedicated to handling this matter and any other violations aggressively,” Weddle said at the time.

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Taylor, a native of Grenada, covers state government and statewide elections. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and Holmes Community College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Taylor reported on state and local government for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, where he received an award for his coverage of the federal government’s lawsuit against the state’s mental health system.