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Local Municipal Candidates Confused After Attorney General’s Late Residency Ruling

Candidate Afton Thomas and her family moved into their Oxford home in Ward 2 in May 2020, upgrading to a home with a backyard that would soon be used by her two children and new dog, Mavis. She was surprised by a last-minute opinion by Attorney General Lynn Fitch that she needs to have lived there for two years to run for office. Photo by Grace Marion

Three local Oxford candidates are in confusing limbo after Attorney General Lynn Fitch announced on Monday that municipal candidates in Mississippi should be required to live in their current wards for at least two years leading up to their election in order to qualify for their races. 

Oxford Ward 2 candidate Afton Thomas reacted with disbelief to Fitch’s last-minute ruling, which is in direct conflict with the position of Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson.

“I understand living in a place for two years,” Thomas told the Mississippi  Free Press. But, she added, moving between wards within your community—“whether that is to grow your family and move into a larger home, or downsize”—should not preclude a local candidacy in a resident’s current ward. 

“Especially here in Oxford, where the lines are, I mean, … it’s swervy curvy, you know?” Thomas said. “It’s unfortunate to democracy.” 

Oxford Ward 2 candidate Afton Thomas and her dog Mavis at her home three minutes from her last one, but in a different ward. Photo by Grace Marion

Thomas’ family moved a three-minute drive away from their old home in May 2020 after Thomas, her first child and her husband moved to Oxford in 2012. Because their growing family moved from Ward 3 to Ward 2 less than two years before the election, she may be unable to run if the City of Oxford chooses to follow Fitch’s recommendation.  

The other two potentially affected candidates in Oxford—Erin Smith and Harry A. Alexander, both running in Ward 1—could not be reached for comment. 

Secretary of State: Timing of Fitch Bombshell ‘Inexcusable’

The attorney general’s official recommendation is in direct contradiction to how the rest of the state– including Mississippi’s secretary of state—has been interpreting Mississippi Code 23-25-30 since it passed in 2019. 

“It was not until Wednesday that I learned of an opinion reversing course from a year’s worth of advice our office used to conduct these trainings,” Secretary of State Watson said in a statement provided to the Mississippi Free Press. 

Prior to Fitch’s statement on Monday, which the Daily Journal in Tupelo first reported, candidates running for municipal seats believed they only needed to have lived in their municipality for two years prior to election, not in their specific ward. Mississippians only need to live in the area they want to vote in for 30 days to vote in state, local and municipal elections. 

The last-minute timing of Fitch’s statement could hurt people in multiple ways, Watson pointed out.

“We are all extremely concerned about the impact this will have on candidates who have spent their time, money and other resources on campaigns that will come to a screeching halt due to this opinion,” Watson said. 

Mississippi Secretary of State Micheal Watson was blindsided when he learned that Attorney General Lynn Fitch had issued the two-year residency opinion. Fitch’s office had provided videos he uses for municipal training, which indicate that the two-year requirement did not apply to wards. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

“The timing of this opinion, issued just days before the qualifying deadline, is inexcusable,” he added, noting that while the deadline for candidates to register is today, Feb. 5. Watson himself only heard about the recommendation from Fitch’s office Wednesday, he said. 

It is unclear at publication time whether any potential candidates in Mississippi municipal elections had decided to suspend their campaigns as a result of Fitch’s statement. 

Attorney General Lynn Fitch
Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch issued her two-year residency opinion on Feb. 1, 2021, in response to an inquiry by Rob Robertson, attorney for the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, about the law. Photo courtesy Lynn Fitch

Despite the confusion and stress the statement caused this week, Fitch’s office said today, which is the filing deadline, that her opinion is not binding.

“It’s just advisory as a result of an official opinions request that came to our office—so nothing has changed,” Mississippi Attorney General’s office Communications Director Colby Jordan said Friday. 

Jordan went on to explain that, following her office’s recommendation, each candidate’s situation should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, as the law includes a stipulation that any municipal ordinances regarding candidate requirements should supersede the state law where those ordinances exist. 

Fitch’s ruling is an interpretation of Mississippi code 23-25-30, which is a law stemming from Senate Bill 2030. Section 1 of the law reads: “(1)  Any candidate for any municipal, county or county district office shall be a resident of the municipality, county, county district or other territory that he or she seeks to represent in such office for two (2) years immediately preceding the day of election.  The provisions of this section shall not apply to any municipality with less than one thousand (1,000) residents according to the latest federal decennial census. 

Dem Chairman: ‘The Statute Is Ambiguous’

Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Tyree Irving spoke with the Mississippi Free Press today regarding Fitch’s confusing recommendation. 

“[T]he statute does not mention municipal wards at all, (and) the Legislature was aware that municipalities have wards, and all the persons and council persons getting elected from wards,” Irving said. “So at a minimum, the statute is ambiguous, and I think any ambiguity should be resolved in favor of the citizen who is trying in good faith to comply with the law.”

The Republican Party of Mississippi was not available for comment today.

The qualifying deadline has not yet been reached; thus, the MSGOP is not in receipt of the totality of candidate-qualifying documents,” Mississippi Republican Party Communications Director Nicole Webb said. She did not respond to requests for an interview.

Starkville City Clerk Lesa Harding told the Mississippi Free Press that no candidates in her municipality would be disqualified following the ruling. 

Jackson City Clerk Angela Harris said people should contact the local branches of their political party to get more information about which candidates might be affected. 

Tupelo has no candidates that appear to be affected by the ruling, the Daily Journal reported.

Sen. Kevin Blackwell, a Republican from DeSoto County, introduced Senate Bill 2030 originally, but failed in his attempt to amend the law in 2020 to clarify the requirement for municipal elections. Courtesy Mississippi Legislature

SB 2030 passed in March of 2019, and Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed it into law. Repulican Sen. Kevin Blackwell, the chairman of the Mississippi Senate’s Elections Committee, authored the bill.

In 2020, Blackwell tried to amend the law to clarify whether municipal candidates needed to be residents of their city for two years or residents of both their city and ward for two years, but the measure failed, as the statement from Secretary of State Michael Watson provided to the Mississippi Free Press confirmed.

Blackwell’s attempt to clarify the law “was due to advice from the Attorney General’s Office (AG) stating wards were not included in the two-year residency requirement,” Watson wrote on Friday.  Blackwell is currently too busy to answer press inquiries, his Jackson office said today. He represents Mississippi District 19, in DeSoto County, which encompasses most of the city of Olive Branch. He has been in office since 2016. 

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