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The strange case of the McDaniel staffer locked in the county courthouse

The Hinds County, Mississippi Sheriff's Department is investigating why three people, including a staffer for Republican senate candidate Chris McDaniel ended up locked in the county courthouse on election night, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. Given how close the contest between McDaniel and Sen. Thad Cochran ended up on Tuesday night -- the two are separated by less than 1,500 votes -- the situation certainly raises eyebrows.

Chris McDaniel addresses his supporters Tuesday night. (AP Photo/George Clark)

Let's get one thing out of the way at the outset. There is no evidence that the presence of McDaniel campaign coalition coordinator Scott Brewster and the others affected the results in the county. The group never had access to the counted ballots, as county sheriff spokesman Othor Cain told the Clarion ledger.

Since Hinds County favored Cochran so lopsidedly (by nearly two-to-one), we looked to see if there was any indication of abnormality. The state's tally wasn't complete until late yesterday because election officials were waiting for more returns from four more precincts in Hinds. Those last precincts added just over 1,000 votes to the total in the state, and Cochran won them 56 percent to 44 percent. (McDaniel leads by nearly 1,400 votes in the state.)

It does not appear that the number of votes in the county was unusually low, which might suggest that votes had gone missing. Turnout was far lower than in 2010 and, particularly, 2012, when the county voted for President Obama — but turnout patterns on Tuesday were similar to nearby Jones and Madison counties. Below, the change in turnout percentage from 2010 and 2012 to 2014. (Data sources are at the bottom of this article.) We included Rankin County, where McDaniel did the best — and where turnout was up as compared to the 2010 general.

Setting that aside, the question remains: What was the group doing in that courthouse? Brewster was joined by Janis Lane and Rob Chambers. They appear to all be McDaniel supporters: Lane, the Clarion-Ledger reports, is a board member of the Central Mississippi Tea Party; Chambers is a consultant who has worked with McDaniel. When questioned by the sheriff, the three gave "conflicting stories" about their presence in the courthouse.

Local TV station WAPT reported how it apparently happened:

Hinds County Election Commissioner Connie Cochran said security employees told her that Lane, Rob Chambers and Scott Brewster went to the courthouse about 12:30 a.m. to observe the election process.

The three walked around the building until they found an unlocked door, which locked behind them once they went inside, Cochran said. The trio claimed they walked around the courthouse for about 90 minutes looking for a way to get out and then called Perry, Cochran said.

According to election officials, the ballots had been counted and stored by 11:30 p.m, an hour before the trio went in to observe the results.

The national focus on the race is one reason the incident has attracted so much attention. The other is the involvement of Brewster, who was also involved in the McDaniel campaign's response to the photos of Cochran's ill wife that a campaign supporter, Clayton Kelly, posted online. Three people besides that supporter have been arrested in connection to the photos, including a vice chairman of the Mississippi Tea Party (a different group than Lane's). When the photos were included in a video that was posted online, Brewster denied knowing about it, despite apparently texting state Republican officials to indicate that he was working to "scrub social media" of the story.

If you're curious how the trio ended up getting out of the courthouse, simple. Lane called a Republican official at 2 a.m. to ask for his help.

Data sources: 2010 results (using the highest vote-total race for each county), 2012, 2014.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.

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