Civil rights group sues Mississippi over ‘burdensome’ absentee voting rules

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Rogelio V. Solis, AP

A voter takes advantage of the lull in voting to cast her ballot at Chastain Middle School in Jackson.

A national civil rights group has filed a lawsuit against state officials over Mississippi’s absentee voting procedures, which “threaten to disenfranchise honest, eligible voters,” the suit alleges.

The suit, filed last week by the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in the state’s Southern District, seeks emergency relief on behalf of three Mississippi residents who will be away from home during Tuesday’s runoff election and intend to vote absentee instead. None of the three had received their requested ballots as of Nov. 20, stated the suit, which was also filed on behalf of the NAACP’s Mississippi chapter.

But according to Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, computer records show that county officials downloaded ballots for two of the plaintiffs, William Sewell and Julianne Huber, on Nov. 17, the first day that those ballots could have been mailed out, the Associated Press reported.

Current state law requires people applying for absentee ballots to have those applications notarized before mailing them to the circuit clerk. The ballot itself must also be notarized before it is mailed.

The circuit clerk’s office must receive absentee ballots before 5 p.m. Monday, the day before Election Day itself — and a deadline that, for this year, has already passed.

“This burdensome process is difficult to navigate in the best of circumstances,” the Lawyers’ Committee said in the complaint. “When compounding circumstances — such as an inability to pay for or find notary services, or a delay in postal delivery — add further complications, it becomes impossible.”

The suit, which names Gov. Phil Bryant, Hosemann and other election officials as defendants, calls for the state to ease restrictions on absentee voting in future elections by allowing electronic ballot submissions and relaxing the requirement that absentee voters have their ballots notarized.

State Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, highlighted the state’s absentee voting regulations in a press conference earlier this month, comparing the state’s current process to poll taxes that historically barred African Americans from voting, due to the cost of having a document notarized.

Absentee voters may also have to pay extra for expedited shipping to ensures that their ballots arrive in time, as both Blount and the Lawyers’ Committee have observed.

The plaintiffs of the Lawyers’ Committee suit also seek a time extension on absentee ballots received in the mail for Tuesday’s runoff election, calling for the state to count all ballots postmarked by or on Nov. 27.

In this year’s election, individuals who intended to vote absentee for both the general election on Nov. 6 and Tuesday’s runoff would have had to request separate absentee ballots for each election, meaning voters like college students would have had less than three weeks to request and send another ballot application and then receive, fill out and send the runoff ballot itself.

Early voting in-person is also held at circuit clerk’s offices on the two Saturdays prior to election day for people who will be out of their county of residence on Election Day or are age 65 or older.