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Legal arguments contest Sparta election, state investigation ongoing

Weeks after Sparta's municipal election, the results and voter rolls have become mired in litigation with parties seeking court orders to prevent winners from taking office.

Defeated incumbent mayor William Evans Jr. has filed a petition to challenge the election results, claiming the winner, former newspaper editor and publisher R. Allen Haywood, was ineligible to run due to a past felony conviction in Alabama. The petition, filed last week in Hancock County Superior Court, names Haywood and Sparta's Supervisor of Elections as respondents.

Haywood maintains he was eligible to run for office.

In a separate case, the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda and five black Hancock County residents have filed a complaint for injunctive and declaratory relief against Hancock County's Board of Elections and Registration, five board members and the county's elections supervisor, claiming black voters were improperly purged from voter rolls before the election.

A lawyer representing the board said last week no one who lives in the city has come forward saying they wanted to vote on election day and were unable to do so.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Secretary of State's office is investigating allegations people gave illegal assistance to voters and other alleged irregularities at the polls, according to the office.

WERE RIGHTS RESTORED?

Three candidates ran for mayor of Sparta, a city with an estimated population of about 1,400 people, located about 50 miles northeast of Macon.

After being mayor for more than two decades, 67-year-old Evans faced challengers Haywood and Rosemary O'Neill, according to Evans' petition.

In the petition, Evans alleges that Haywood falsely swore in his affidavit and notice of candidacy that he was not a "convicted felon of a crime involving moral turpitude to which he had not had his civil rights restored."

Evans' lawyer, Wayne Kendall, signed an affidavit filed with the petition, saying he called the Alabama Board of Pardons and Parole Nov. 10 and was told the agency didn't have any record that Haywood's rights had been restored.

Contacted by phone, Kendall said the city's charter says the candidate who receives the most votes is the winner of the election.

If Haywood is disqualified, as Kendall argues he should be, Evans should be declared the winner, he said.

"He had the highest vote of the eligible candidates," Kendall said.

Haywood said he stands by his eligibility.

"When I signed that oath, I firmly believed that I was qualified to be a candidate for mayor," he said. "It is my understanding that my rights had been restored."

Then 31 and living in Phenix City, Alabama, Haywood was accused of taking $69,000 in 1983. He was sentenced to five years probation later that year, according to Montgomery County, Alabama court records filed with Evans' petition. He was also ordered to spend 20 Saturday nights in jail.

Haywood's probation was terminated in 1984, according to the records.

Haywood said he didn't hide his past when he moved to Sparta 32 years ago to work for his father's newspaper, The Sparta Ishmaelite, which he bought two years later.

After selling the paper in 2005, Haywood worked for Reynolds Plantation and as Hancock County's Development Authority executive director for three years.

He said he was encouraged by residents to run for mayor.

Evans' petition requests that a judge prevent Haywood from taking office until a hearing can be held about his eligibility. Evans also asks that he be declared the winner of the election.

"It's pretty much an open and shut case in the sense that it's indisputable that he has a felony conviction." Kendall said. "It's also undisputed pretty much, as far as I can tell, that he has not had his civil rights restored."

A hearing date hasn't been set.

ALLEGED VOTING RIGHTS VIOLATIONS

In their complaint, filed in federal court on the day of the election, the NAACP and other plaintiffs in the voting rights case allege that the "majority-white" Board of Elections and Registration conducted a series of "improper and racially based challenges and purges of black registered voters" from the county's voter registration prior to the Sparta municipal election.

Between August and October 2015, the board challenged about 174 voters' registration, representing more than 17 percent of Sparta's 988 registered voters, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs allege the hearings were "a sham ... conducted in an arbitrary manner and without consistent criteria or procedures" to remove black voters and benefit white and "white-preferred" candidates.

In addition to the mayor's race, city council seats also were on the ballot. The black mayoral incumbent and two black council members faced white challengers. Two blacks ran against each other to fill a vacant council seat, according to the complaint.

The board frequently accepted hearsay, speculation and unsubstantiated rumors from unnamed and anonymous people as evidence to remove voters from the registration list, according to the complaint.

Legally qualified black voters have been improperly stricken from the rolls, and another group of black voters was required to go to the board's office and provide proof of residency before they could vote, the plaintiffs contend.

Voter rolls hadn't been culled in more than 20 years, said Barry Fleming, an attorney representing the board.

Periodic purges are needed to remove deceased voters and those who have moved, he said.

Fleming said, "Nobody that we have any knowledge of came and said they wanted to vote and couldn't."

The plaintiffs request in their complaint that a judge issue an injunction preventing the certification of the Nov. 3 election's results until voters removed from the rolls are returned.

They also want an injunction to force the board to discontinue their alleged improper voter registration challenges and discontinue canceling a registration based upon a change of address unless the voter provides notice of a move.

A hearing hasn't been set.

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