Sen. Blount: Mississippi’s burdensome absentee voting process resembles poll tax

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Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said Oct. 31, 2018, that nearly twice as many people have requested absentee ballots this year than during the last federal midterm election in 2014, during a news conference in his Jackson, Miss., office.

Mississippians living out of state, such as college students, who want to vote in the Nov. 27 runoff election for U.S. senator will have a short time period to do so.

And it is not altogether certain they can accomplish the feat, said state Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, who held a news conference Friday at the Hinds County Courthouse with Circuit Clerk Zack Wallace to discuss the issue.

“We believe that the more people who vote the better government you have,” Blount said, adding voting should be made easier.

The problem is that the absentee process requires individuals to fill out an application for a ballot and have it notarized before sending it back to the circuit clerk, who then will send out a ballot. That ballot also must be notarized before it is sent back.

For the runoff, the deadline for counties to send results from the Nov. 6 election to the state for certification is Nov. 16. It is not uncommon for counties to miss that deadline because of various issues.

But assuming that Friday, Nov. 16 deadline is met, the ballots could be mailed out the following Monday to the requester, such as an out of state college student. That ballot might not be received by the college student until Nov. 21 – the day before Thanksgiving. Then on the Friday after Thanksgiving the college student would have to find a notary and get the ballot back in the mail to arrive at the circuit clerk’s office by 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 26 to make the deadline.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, holds a copy of the Legislative Budget Report during a special session of the Legislature in June at the Capitol in Jackson.

Blount has filed bills in the past to allow early voting and to allow college students to be treated like Mississippians living overseas, such as those in the military or Peace Corps. Those ballots are received and sent back via email and do not have to be notarized.

Another option that would help would be to allow the clerks to automatically send an absentee ballot for a runoff to anyone who requests one for the first election.

“If we want our young people to participate, we need to make our process better,” he said.

He also said the current process “resembles” a poll tax, that once was levied to prevent African Americans from voting. He said in many places it costs to have a document notarized. In addition, he said to be safe during the Nov. 27 runoff, it would make sense to pay extra postage to expedite the arrival of the ballot at the clerk’ office.

“Historically, Mississippi has not made it easy to vote,” Blount said. “That is a fact, but we can change that.”

Blount said he will again file legislation during the 2019 session to try to make it easier to vote in Mississippi. He said 37 states already have early voting.

In Mississippi people can vote early at their circuit clerk’s office if they are going to be out of their county of residence on election day or if they are age 65 or over. The circuit clerk’s office in each county is supposed to be open until noon on the final two Saturdays before the election for absentee balloting.

The other option for a person who is out of town Election Day is to request an absentee ballot.

The Nov. 27 runoff ballot will consist of the U.S. Senate special runoff election between Democrat Mike Espy and interim Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and various judicial elections. The Senate special election was necessitated by the retirement earlier this year of long-time Sen. Thad Cochran for health reasons.

Espy and Hyde-Smith advanced to a runoff because no candidate in the four person field garnered a majority vote on Nov. 6. A person does not have to have voted on Nov. 6 to be eligible to vote on Nov. 27.

Follow Mississippi Today’s full coverage of the historic runoff election between Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy.