Legislators could grapple with expanded early voting when session resumes

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Sen. David Blount speaks to Getty Israel during a committee meeting about Medicaid at the Mississippi State Capitol Tuesday, February 4, 2020.

Recently Wisconsin Republican Robin Vos appeared decked out in full and much coveted medical personal protection equipment at a polling place. A video of Vos, the speaker of the state assembly, saying those voting and working at the polls at last week’s Wisconsin election faced “very minimal exposure,” has garnered considerable national attention.

Ironically, Vos was among the officials arguing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic should not be a reason to delay the election or to expand mail-in voting to protect the safety of Wisconsin voters.

For Mississippians, the video could portend the November general election. Everyone hopes that by November the state and country will have returned to a semblance of normalcy and that concerns about the coronavirus have subsided. But if they have not, Mississippians could face more voting obstacles than many in other states because Mississippi has some of the nation’s most restrictive regulations on absentee and early, in-person voting.

When the Legislature returns from its coronavirus-forced recess – presumably in May – Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, hopes lawmakers will take up and pass a proposal to expand the early voting options, at least during emergency situations such as a pandemic.

“Nobody knows what the conditions will be in November,” Blount said recently. “Everything might be OK. That would be great, but we need to listen to the health care experts. If things are not normal, we need to have safety precautions in place so everybody can vote and vote safely.”

When serving as secretary of state and overseeing elections, current Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann briefly endorsed no-excuse early voting and online voter registration. Hosemann endorsed the concepts based on the recommendations of a bi-partisan elections task force he created in 2014. But the proposals were blocked by the Republican legislative leadership and Hosemann’s support waned.

But Hosemann, who now presides over the Senate, said recently it might be time to revisit the issue.

“Significant cybersecurity and other concerns in recent years caused us to exercise caution in changing the absentee laws or allowing online voter registration,” Hosemann said. “The current COVID-19 crisis, however, is causing us to take a second look at these laws and other statutes which may need to be revised and updated.”

Gov. Tate Reeves, who has dealt with the coronavirus, tornadoes and other crises during his first three months in office, indicated recently that issues in November are not currently high on his list of priorities.

“As we move through the summer into the fall, we will do everything we possibly can to ensure that every Mississippian who wants to vote has the opportunity to vote,” Reeves said.

Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, echoed similar sentiments.

“While that is something to be taken into consideration at the appropriate time, right now the focus is on getting past the health crisis as well as addressing the needs of Mississippians affected by the Easter Sunday storms that devastated parts of our state,” Gunn said.

But if the expansion of early voting  is not addressed during a resumed 2020 session, the governor would have to call a special session before the election to expand early voting.

“None of us know what the conditions will be in November,” Blount reiterated.

He said there is a bill alive in the Senate dealing with absentee voting issues that he believes could be amended when the session resumes to deal with the possible emergency. In its current form, the bill makes changes to the state absentee voting law to prevent people who vote early from changing their minds and then voting on election day.

Mississippi is among nine states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, that do not allow some form of no-excuse early voting.  And according to Represent Us, a national non-profit promoting mail-in voting, Mississippi is one of only eight states not to have taken at least temporary action to allow mail-in voting. Neighboring Alabama is one of the latest to have taken such action.

Under current law in Mississippi, people who will be away from their home area on election day, the disabled, those over the age of 65 and a few other groups are allowed to vote early.

Blount said that should be expanded at least in case of an emergency like the pandemic. He also said perhaps more locations for in-person, early voting should be provided. Currently, in-person early voting, which also is confined to those away from home on election day, older voters and the disabled, is allowed only in the local circuit clerks’ offices.

Republican Secretary of State Michael Watson, who opposed no-excuse early voting during his successful election campaign in 2019, said whether to expand early voting because of the pandemic is a decision for the Legislature.

“As for our November plans, we’ve been studying the right approach and our office has asked for input from our circuit clerks and (local) election commissioners,” he said. “We’re a bottom-up state, meaning our elections are handled on the local level, so I did not want to make a decision without asking those on the frontline of our election operations for their thoughts and ideas.”

Watson pointed out that the governor has postponed a Republican runoff election for the U.S. House District 2 post that was scheduled in March and has rescheduled a state House election called to fill a vacated seat.

In postponing the special House election on March 30, Reeves said, “The health and well-being of all Mississippians must and always will be our top priority. We are closer to the beginning than the end of this outbreak, and conducting an election at this time would unnecessarily put our poll workers and voters at risk. We must protect our rights as Americans to a free and fair election, but not at the expense of the health and safety of our people. Stay home, stay healthy.”