Jackson-based attorney Sam Begley, left, and District 3 resident Catherine Van Halsema listen during the Oktibbeha County board of supervisors special-call meeting Wednesday to determine whether Van Halsema met the two-year residency requirement to run for election commissioner. The board voted 3-1 to disqualify her on the premise that her decision to vote via absentee ballot in Indiana in November 2018 meant she still considered herself an Indiana resident within two years of the 2020 election. Photo by: Tess Vrbin/Dispatch Staff
September 3, 2020 9:54:48 AM
Oktibbeha supervisors voted 3-1 in a special-call meeting Wednesday to disqualify a candidate for District 3 election commissioner after the incumbent questioned his opponent's time as a permanent resident of the county.
Catherine Van Halsema, an independent, was running to challenge Republican incumbent Myles Carpenter. His Columbus-based attorney, William Starks, told the board of supervisors that Van Halsema's decision to vote in Indiana via an absentee ballot in November 2018 meant she would not meet the requirement of living in Oktibbeha County for a full two years before the 2020 election. Election day is Nov. 3 this year, and in 2018 it was Nov. 6.
The Oktibbeha County Election Commission has five members, one from each district, that serve four-year terms. The commission is responsible for "managing all aspects of general and special elections in the county, maintaining an up-to-date list of registered voters, hiring and training poll workers, and assisting in the resolution of election challenges," according to the county website.
Van Halsema's attorney, Sam Begley of Jackson, cited several 2018 social media posts as proof of Van Halsema establishing herself in Starkville in the summer of 2018. She had just finished the spring semester at Indiana University when she moved into a house on Critz Street with Jay Hurdle, then her fiance and now her husband. Begley also used bank and university records to prove Van Halsema had been using the Critz Street address as her permanent address for more than two years.
He cited state supreme court cases that have ruled residence as a person's "true fixed permanent home and principal establishment."
"Living is domesticity, it's living in a house, it's going to the grocery store," Begley said. "It's getting your mail at a house, opening the mail, paying the bills... A living arrangement is not something that goes on at a precinct."
Begley also said the date of the 2018 election was not the determining factor in Van Halsema's residency in Oktibbeha County because absentee ballots are mailed before election day and she would have mailed it from Starkville.
Starks' counter argument was that an absentee ballot proves the intent to return to the other place.
"If she wanted to establish that she had abandoned it, then she shouldn't have made a representation that (she was) still a resident (of Indiana)," Starks said.
Board Attorney Rob Roberson agreed the argument was not whether Van Halsema intended to establish herself in Starkville but whether she intended to abandon her residency in Indiana.
After a closed-door discussion, District 1 Supervisor and Board President John Montgomery suggested a vote to disqualify Van Halsema from running for election commissioner. Supervisors Marvell Howard of District 3 and Joe Williams of District 5 voted yes with Montgomery. District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer voted no, and District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller was absent.
Montgomery and Trainer both told The Dispatch the "gray area" in Van Halsema's casting of an absentee ballot was the reason for their votes.
Trainer said he believed the voters of District 3 should have had the opportunity to decide whether Van Halsema should hold office, while Montgomery said the date of the 2018 election was the determining factor.
"She cast that absentee ballot, so she still considered herself a resident (of Indiana) in my eyes," Montgomery said.
Van Halsema told The Dispatch she was "not satisfied" with the board's decision and will discuss with Begley the option of appealing it. She said her campaign had been centered on increasing voter engagement and education.
"Whether or not my name is on the ballot in November, I fully intend to continue to register new voters in our district, educate them on how to vote and make sure they're able to vote in November," Van Halsema said.
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