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Defeated lawmaker questions validity of election

A one-term state lawmaker in Mississippi is contesting her narrow loss in the general election, saying she believes voting irregularities raise questions about the fairness of the election process.

Republican Ashley Henley has filed a petition asking the House of Representatives to toss out the election results and declare the seat vacant. That declaration would lead to another election.

On Nov. 5, Henley lost by 14 votes to Democrat Hester Jackson McCray, according to certified results posted to the secretary of state’s website.

The women ran in House District 40, which encompasses a portion of DeSoto County in the northwestern corner of the state. DeSoto has been Mississippi’s fastest-growing county for years, and it’s just a stone’s throw from Memphis, Tennessee.

DeSoto is a Republican stronghold. Census figures show the county’s overall population is about 68 percent white and 29 percent African American, although those percentages could be different inside District 40.

McCray is poised to make history: She will be the first African American woman to hold a state legislative seat from DeSoto County.

“I won the election fair and square,” McCray told The Associated Press on Friday.

McCray has worked as a nurse and said she is now disabled and is no longer able to do that job. She campaigned on promises to improve public education and expand access to health care.

Henley taught social studies before she was elected to the House in 2015. Because rules prohibited teachers from serving in the Legislature, she left that job just before she took office. She ran with a broad promise to watch how tax dollars are spent and a narrower pledge to ensure teachers can be paid twice a month rather than once.

The 2019 election was a rematch.

In 2015, Henley defeated McCray by a wide margin in District 40. Henley received 1,173 votes to McCray’s 544.

In 2019, McCray received 1,553 votes to Henley’s 1,539.

McCray received campaign help this year from Democrats who saw an opportunity to flip the House seat from R to D.

In a separate interview Friday, Henley told the AP that she is not accusing McCray or McCray’s campaign of any sort of wrongdoing.

“My petition does not even mention the other candidate,” Henley said. “It’s about the proper conducting of an election, according to law. That’s the most important thing, in my opinion.”

The petition says several people voted using addresses where they no longer live; one person who owns multiple properties voted at a property that’s not where the person claims to live; another person voted in District 40 despite living in a different district; and one person voted at the wrong precinct.

Henley’s petition says election officials failed to get some voters’ signatures. It also says two ballots marked in favor of Henley were found in an equipment bag, apparently discarded.

Henley said she is contesting the outcome because she promised her constituents she would represent them to the best of her ability, and that includes ensuring election rules are followed.

Republican Rep. Philip Gunn is expected to easily win a third term as speaker of the Republican-majority House when the legislative session begins Jan. 7. Early in the session, he will appoint a committee to consider Henley’s complaint.

Four years ago, a House committee considered two election contests, upholding the result in one race and reversing the result in the other. The race that was reversed was significant because the new outcome gave Republicans a 60 percent supermajority — a margin that allows them to enact tax changes without seeking any votes from Democrats.

Republicans still have that margin, regardless of what happens with the District 40 challenge.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter at EWagsterPettus.