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Barbour’s dirty tricks

Rarely does Mississippi have a competitive Senate race. Once Magnolia Staters choose a senator, they tend to stick with him; only four men have held the state’s two Senate seats in the last 61 years.

So in an otherwise quiet political year for Mississippi, the competitive Senate special election to complete Trent Lott’s (R) term has taken the state by storm. Appointed Sen. Roger Wicker (R) is facing a spirited challenge from former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, with the latest Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos pegging the race at 48 percent for Wicker to 43 percent for Musgrove, making this one of the closest Senate battles in the country. Given the deference Mississippi voters give to incumbent senators, whoever wins will likely hold the seat for quite some time.

In a year in which Republicans are poised to lose at least four Senate seats, the thought of fighting for survival in reliably conservative Mississippi has apparently proven too much for Republican Gov. Haley Barbour to bear, so he’s resorting to dirty tricks.

Last week, Barbour and the Republican secretary of state overruled the Democratic attorney general and placed the special Senate election last on the ballot. It takes serious chutzpah to place the hottest race in the state — for a key and rarely contested seat — below obscure county and local contests, but according to Barbour, races for dogcatcher are more important than a U.S. Senate campaign.

Or maybe — just maybe — Barbour’s ballot shenanigans are motivated by the fact that the lower a race is listed on the ballot, the fewer votes there will be in that race. Republicans are praying that energized but unsophisticated Democratic voters turning out for Obama will skip the rest of the lengthy ballot, thus depriving Musgrove of their critical votes.

The bad news for the GOP is that Barbour’s decision is inarguably against Mississippi law, as the relevant statute makes clear:

SEC. 23-15-367. Arrangement of names of candidates, order of titles of offices, and printing of official ballot generally; order in which titles of various offices are to be listed on the ballot …

... (2) The titles for the various offices shall be listed in the following order:

(a) Candidates for national office; 

(b) Candidates for statewide office; 

(c) Candidates for state district office;
(d) Candidates for legislative office; 

(e) Candidates for countywide office; 

(f) Candidates for county district office.

Despite the unambiguous statute, Barbour insists on ruling Mississippi like his own personal fiefdom.

His control of the state’s electoral machinery, as well as its Supreme Court, has made an ongoing mockery of the rule of law.

When Lott originally resigned for his cushy K Street gig in December 2007, Barbour was required to set the date of the special election within 100 days, unless there was a regularly scheduled election that year. Of course, by December, there were no elections scheduled for 2007; hence a special election should’ve occurred by March 2008. But Barbour, afraid that a special election in March would favor Democrats, argued that “same year” meant “within 365 days.” While his interpretation violated common sense, and while a lower court ruled the election had to take place no later than March, Barbour’s allies on the Supreme Court endorsed his absurd interpretation of the law. The court’s dissent called the decision “gobbledygook.”

Now that same Supreme Court will once again decide between the law and Barbour’s partisan machinations. The law is clear. How Barbour’s Court will respond is not.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos
(www.dailykos.com).