Michael Watson at a candidates’ forum sponsored by MSU’s s Stennis Institute of Government and the Capitol Press Corps in October, 2019.

A section of existing Mississippi law could be used to allow some people to vote early by mail to avoid coronavirus exposure at the polls in November, Secretary of State Michael Watson told legislators Wednesday.

Mississippi is one of six states nationwide that have not taken steps to expand voting by mail because of the coronavirus. The House and Senate Elections committees held a joint hearing on Wednesday regarding voting issues in November if the coronavirus is still a concern.

In the hearing, Watson said it should be up to local circuit clerks in each county to determine whether a person could vote early under a provision of law that says people with a temporary disability can vote early by mail or in person.

But Watson, who is the state’s chief elections officer, said he opposed a blanket expansion of vote by mail, though he said he would support an expansion to allow people to vote early in person at local courthouses.

Watson added that if a person was seen at Walmart or a sporting goods store the day before, they had no reason to say they were afraid to go to the polls on Election Day to vote.

“I think our circuit clerks are smart enough to figure that out,” Watson said when asked which residents should be provided an absentee, mail-in ballot.

Under current Mississippi law, those over the age of 65, disabled residents or those who will be away from home on Election Day are allowed to vote early. Watson’s interpretation of the current state law, as he explained to the media after the Wednesday hearing, is that any expansion most likely would occur only for those with preexisting conditions.

Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson, said she does not believe the temporary disability provision in existing law will be enough to provide protection for voters this November, especially if counties were left to interpreted the law on their own.

“It should be the same in all counties with no confusion,” she said, adding that the Legislature should take steps to allow people to vote without having to go to a crowded precinct on Election Day.

Just the expansion of the disability provision alone would be far less than what most other states have done during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Georgia, applications for mail-in ballots were sent to every registered voter for the upcoming primary election, and an application also was placed online.

“Don’t like it, don’t support it,” Watson said of early voting by mail. Watson said the practice could lead to fraud, especially because voter rolls in many Mississippi counties have not been purged of those who have died or moved. National studies, though, have found virtually no examples of the fraud that Watson and several others, especially in the Republican Party, espouse when arguing against voting by mail.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Summers said absentee voting “can be cumbersome” under current law. Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, agreed and said he hopes steps are taking to streamline the absentee process.

Under current law, a person must submit a notarized request for a ballot. Then the completed ballot must also be notarized, and there are strict guidelines on how signatures must appear on the envelop.

Of efforts to make it easier to vote this November, Blount said: “I think we are making progress.”

Leroy Lacy, a Madison County election commissioner and chair of the state Election Commissioners Association, said counties will need help acquiring personal protection equipment for poll workers and for hiring more poll workers to help with issues such as social distancing, curbside voting and sanitation.

There is federal money available to help with those issues. Watson said his office received $4.7 million in federal funds to deal with election issues related to the coronavirus.

There also is talk of helping local governments with the purchase of voting machines to replace the touch screen systems currently used by nearly 70 counties.

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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.