Secretary of State candidates Michael Watson and Johnny DuPree

Republican Michael Watson believes the office of Secretary of State has been run efficiently and competently by outgoing incumbent Delbert Hosemann and he wants to “keep it between the ditches” if elected to oversee the office on Nov. 5

Watson’s Democratic opponent, Johnny DuPree, wants to focus on expanding the percentage of people voting in Mississippi by enacting no excuse early voting, allowing online voter registration and developing educational efforts to spur civic engagement, particularly among young people.

“I think our system as it is is working,” said Watson, who added he would focus on educational efforts to encourage more voter participation. “…In my opinion it (voting) is easier enough as is.” Watson said he likes the emphasis on a single day of voting instead of a system where people can vote during a time period before Election Day.

In Mississippi people are allowed to vote early only if they will be away from home on Election Day, or are disabled or elderly. No excuse early voting is allowed in 38 states. DuPree said voting is “a fundamental right” and should be made as easy as possible,  especially for working people.

“I do know that two-thirds of America allow it (early voting) and we don’t,” said DuPree. “…I don’t know why voting is such a crime in Mississippi. That is what it feels like, a crime.” He said the state’s political establishment is focused on maintaining
“the status quo,” while changes need to be made to connect with potential young voters who need to be given reasons to feel more connected with the state to prevent them from leaving after graduating from college.

DuPree is the former mayor of Hattiesburg and previously served as a Forrest County supervisor. In 2011, he became the first African American to win a major party nomination in Mississippi for the office of governor. He garnered nearly 40 percent of the votes in 2011 in losing to Republican Phil Bryant.

Watson, of Pascagoula, is finishing his third term in the state Senate. He is an attorney. During his past two terms in the Senate, he has at times been at odds with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the chamber’s presiding officer.

Watson and DuPree both spoke and answered questions recently at a meeting of the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute/capitol press corps.

Watson, age 41, cites a conversation with Bryant for his decision to pursue a statewide office. He said he met with the outing governor to discuss his political future. Watson said he told the governor maybe it was time he retired from politics and focused on his private law practice. Watson said Bryant suggested he consider running for secretary of state, an open seat because the incumbent Hosemann is running for lieutenant governor.

“The governor saying run for secretary of state – that is kind of neat,” Watson said.

DuPree, age 65, who has a doctorate in urban studies, served four terms as mayor of Hattiesburg before he was defeated in 2017. After losing the mayoral election, DuPree said he started some businesses and was teaching a public policy class at the University of Southern Mississippi when he decided to re-enter politics.

DuPree recalled his students were bright but were not socially engaged in politics and the election process. He said he decided to run for secretary of state to work to make voting more accessible and to encourage people to engage in the political process.

“If we don’t do something with what we are right now, we are going to end up, maybe not tomorrow, with a small group of people determining our lives,” DuPree said of voter apathy.

One of the high profile functions of the Secretary of State’s office is overseeing state elections, though, in Mississippi local election officials have significant influence over the process.

The office also provides other services, such as a record keeper for the state, an overseer of charities and sports agents, registrar and overseer of various types of Mississippi businesses and administrator of state-owned lands.

DuPree, who has a background in real estate, said he wants the office to focus on ensuring the maximum revenue is earned for local school districts from 16th Section land, which is public lands set aside for education.

DuPree, a former school board member, said he has experience dealing with 16th Section land issues.

While Watson praised the three-term tenure of Hosemann as secretary of state, he is planning at least one new initiative for the office. He wants to move the process of obtaining and renewing Mississippi driver’s licenses from the Department of Public Safety to the office of Secretary of State. Watson said he believes the task would fit in with the mission of the office of Secretary of State.

In recent years, the Mississippi Department of Public Safety has faced scrutiny for the long lines at driver’s licenses bureaus and in some cases the lack of physical locations of driver’s licenses bureaus.

Watson said he would stress making the process more efficient and more user friendly with more informative web sites to cut down on waits and delays.

Watson said he understands that the proposal is a risky one.

He said people have said, “’Michael if you are wrong on this, if you are wrong (on taking over issuing driver’s licenses) in four years it will beat you.’ But we should be courageous enough as public officials to say that is a tough issue. I want to tackle it.”

He said some legislators have said they would file bills to move the driver’s license bureau from DPS to the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office.

DuPree said he believes paper ballots should be used in all elections – especially after what occurred earlier this year in the party primary elections when online videos surfaced of people voting for one candidate and the machine trying to record the vote for the other candidate. He said paper ballots, which some Mississippi counties already use, would help restore faith in the election process.

Watson said instances of the machines trying to change votes were calibration problems and are rare. He said the decision on the type of voting machines used is a local one.

But he conceded requiring paper ballots “is a discussion to be had.”

In an effort to improve voter participation, DuPree also has proposed moving statewide elections to presidential years. Mississippians currently have elections every year when municipal elections are factored in. DuPree said it would make sense to elect as many officers as possible the same year as presidential elections, which draw the largest voter turnout.

As the Republican, Watson is the favorite in the race and has a large advantage in fundraising and campaign cash on hand.

Watson has spent $545,820 this year, based the latest campaign finance report filed with the Secretary of State’s office though September, and has about $67,000 in cash on hand.

DuPree has spent $66,415 and is in debt $3,521.

For information on all candidates running for statewide office, view our #MSElex Voter Guide.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.