Mississippi, with history of voter suppression, trailing most states in making elections safer

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Some Lawmakers say the Legislature should take steps this year to provide Mississippians safe voting options if the coronavirus pandemic is still an issue in November.

In no state has more blood been shed for the right to vote than Mississippi, where people have died in the quest to end Jim Crow-era laws that denied the vote to African American citizens.

Hopefully, Mississippians no longer have to put their lives on the line to vote. But under current state laws, voting could again be dangerous if COVID-19 is still a threat in November when Mississippians go to the polls to elect a president, U.S. senator and other officeholders.

Mississippi has some of the nation’s most restrictive voting laws. And Mississippi is one of only six states, according to Represent Us, a national non-profit promoting mail-in voting, to not have taken steps to make it safer to vote if the coronavirus is still a factor in November.

Bobby Harrison

Both House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, have said the issue of ensuring voter safety will be a topic to be taken up in the coming days and weeks of the legislative session. The state has received federal funds to help ensure a safe election.

Hosemann and Gunn are saying all options are on the table. But as of yet, they are not providing any details.

Will the safety precautions be providing personal protection equipment for poll workers, constantly cleaning voting machines, poll books and the entire voting precinct, limiting the number of people in the precinct and imposing other social distancing measures?

If those are the only changes, many believe the results could be long lines and a lot of inconveniences for a presidential election where normally well over a million Mississippians vote. And still, it is possible mistakes could be made that could result in the spread of the coronavirus.

Other states are taking more significant measures. In Georgia for the upcoming primary elections, the Republican secretary of state sent out requests for absentee ballots to all registered voters. Voters can return that document, receive a ballot and vote by mail.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about three-fifths of the states allow no excuse voting by mail, and about four-fifths of the states allow no excuse in-person early voting. Mississippi is not among those states.

In Mississippi, only people who are away from their home for extended periods can vote by mail. These would include college students and people in the military. In addition, the elderly and disabled can vote by mail.

People who are away from their home just on Election Day, such as on vacation or for work, can vote early in person at the courthouse.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, who previously dealt with election issues when he worked in the Secretary of State’s office, has long been a proponent of providing Mississippians no-excuse early voting options.

Blount said the Legislature should at least take steps this year to afford Mississippians safe voting options if the pandemic is still an issue in November.

Those safer options could be something like what Georgia is doing for its primary, allowing anyone to vote by mail and making it easier by sending them an application for absentee ballot form. In addition, Georgians can go to the secretary of state’s web site to request an absentee ballot.

Another option would be to allow people to vote early in person. If that is done, Blount said the number of areas where people could vote early should be expanded instead of just allowing people to vote at the courthouse.

Perhaps, five locations to vote early could be placed in each county – one in each supervisory district. That could cut down on long lines on Election Day.

House Elections Chair Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, does not rule out expanding early voting, but said he prefers to look for ways to make the precincts safe on Election Day.

Republican Secretary of State Michael Watson has endorsed the Legislature expanding in-person voting options – not mail-in voting – if there is still a pandemic-related state of emergency.

“I want Mississippians to understand this is not a ploy to implement early voting, but a temporary way to permit those who are most at risk of contracting COVID-19 a safe opportunity to exercise their right to vote,” Watson wrote in a commentary he sent to the state’s media outlets.

Watson and many members of the Republican establishment believe that mail-in voting provides the opportunity for fraud. Most states take a different view.

A recent poll conducted by Mississippi-based Chism strategies for Jackson’s Millsaps College found 54 percent of Mississippians believe people should be able “to safely vote by mail this November” and more than 70 percent fear an election disruption.

Of course, there has been a history of election disruptions in Mississippi – at least in terms of allowing people to vote.