Legislative leaders, once again, say they will not expand early voting during pandemic

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Voters wait to vote at Byram City Hall during the midterm elections Tuesday, November 6, 2018.

Bills that would allow people to vote early in person to avoid crowded precincts on Election Day during the COVID-19 pandemic are not expected to be considered while the Legislature is in session Thursday and Friday.

These bills are among several filed this year to make voting easier and safer during the pandemic. All those bills — with the exception of one that provided limited early voting opportunities — died after legislative leaders did not support their passing. The continued deaths of these bills come as most states passed robust measures in 2020 to expand early voting and to ensure safety during the pandemic.

Two bills filed this week by Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, and three members of the House would allow no-excuse early voting in circuit clerks offices for people who want to avoid going to what are expected to be crowded precincts on Election Day. The three House members jointly filing the legislation were Reps. Jansen Owen, R-Poplarville; Kent McCarty, R-Hattiesburg; and Shanda Yates, D-Jackson.

“This year’s election is incredibly important, and likely to be one of the highest turnout elections in the history of the state. With that said, we are also in the midst of an incredibly dangerous health crisis that is the COVID-19 pandemic,” Owen said. “This bill aims to reduce the number of voters at the precincts on Election Day, stymy the potential spread of the coronavirus, and allow voters the option to vote safely, while keeping the integrity of our election secure.”

But late Thursday, it appeared the bills will not be considered while the Legislature is in session this week. This week is likely the last opportunity lawmakers will have to consider expanding voting opportunities before the Nov. 3 general election.

House Elections Chair Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, said there does not seem to be enough support to take up such legislation this year. He said there would have to be a consensus from the circuit clerks, election commissioners and legislators. Sources close to Senate leadership said they do not believe there is any interest in that chamber to pass the legislation.

Mississippi has done less to expand early voting or vote-by-mail opportunities during the pandemic than most states. The Brookings Institute, which has tracked states’ actions on mail-in voting during the pandemic, gave Mississippi a D ranking for its 2020 efforts. Lawmakers in 42 states better expanded mail-in voting than Mississippi, according to their scorecard.

Even before the pandemic, Mississippi had some of the most restrictive early voting laws in the nation. Only people who are going to be away from their home area on Election Day, those over the age of 65 and people with disabilities are allowed to vote early either in person or by mail. Unlike Mississippi, a majority of states, even before the pandemic, had no-excuse early voting.

“Mississippi has the strictest requirements for voting absentee in the nation,” said a study published by the National Notary Association. Those eligible to vote by mail must get both the application for a ballot and the ballot itself notarized.

Blount’s Senate proposal filed this week would eliminate the requirement for the documents to be notarized during 2020. He said the notary requirements were particularly troublesome during the pandemic for people with pre-existing conditions who might not want to venture out to vote in person or to find a notary. Plus, during the pandemic, Blount said a notary might be more difficult to find since many banks where people often find notaries are limiting hours or limiting the number of customers in banks.

Interestingly, in both the 2016 and 2017 sessions, the state House passed bills to allow early voting in person for all Mississippians. In each of those years, the bills were killed without being considered by the Senate Elections Committee.

This year, though, in the midst of the pandemic when many people expressed concerns about big crowds on Election Day, there was no effort by the House leadership to again pass early voting bills.

Lawmakers did pass a proposal earlier this year to allow people to vote early in some instances if under a medical quarantine or if taking care of someone under quarantine. Lawsuits have been filed in both state and federal courts to try to expand Mississippi’s early voting laws.

In the state lawsuit, the Mississippi Supreme Court seemed to narrowly define those who would be allowed to vote early.

“Having a pre-existing condition that puts a voter at a higher risk does not automatically create a temporary disability for absentee-voting purposes,” the majority opinion from the state Supreme Court said.

The federal lawsuit is yet to be resolved.

Lawmakers are back in session this week to consider how the state is spending its federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Security Act funds. Lawmakers planned to finish work Friday to shift federal COVID-19 relief money they had allocated in June to small business and other programs to new relief endeavors.

Lawmakers on Thursday evening were working to move at least $69 million that had been earmarked earlier this year for small business grants and health care programs but remains unspent to programs to help landlords who haven’t been able to collect residential or commercial rent during a pandemic freeze on evictions. They are also hoping to provide financial support to hospital ICU operations, farmers – including specific earmarks for poultry and sweet potato growers – and veterans homes.