‘Practices aimed to suppress the vote’: Mississippi is the only state without early voting for all during pandemic

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

A voter walks into Twin Lakes Baptist Church in Madison, Miss., Tuesday, November 5, 2019.

Mississippi is the only state not to provide all citizens an option to vote early rather than go to crowded precincts on Election Day during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report by the Democracy Initiative.

“Mississippi is now the only state in which in-person voting on Election Day is the only option available to all voters,” said the report from the Democracy Initiative, which is a coalition of 75 groups advocating for voter access. “In Mississippi, an excuse (other than risk of COVID-19) is required to cast an absentee ballot or to vote early, and not all voters qualify.”

Mississippi lawmakers did less to expand early voting or vote-by-mail opportunities during the pandemic than most states.

READ MORE: Legislative leaders, once again, say they will not expand early voting during pandemic.

The Democracy Initiative study points out that 49 states, with the exception of Mississippi, give citizens the opportunity to vote early in-person or by mail this year. Mississippi is one of just five states that does not allow no-excuse voting by mail, but in those other four states, all voters can vote early during the pandemic.

“At a time when we should all be working to make sure that the ballot is accessible to all Mississippians, we continue to fight for the rights of Mississippians to vote,” said Corey Wiggins, executive director of the Mississippi State Conference of NAACP. “Even today, in 2020, we continue to fight against old and outdated policies and practices aimed to suppress the vote.”

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.

To make accommodations for the pandemic, the Legislature expanded early voting earlier this year to only those who are in a physician-ordered quarantine or are the caretaker for someone in quarantine. Lawsuits have been filed to try to expand the early voting opportunities in Mississippi, but thus far they have had not been successful.

The four states contiguous to Mississippi allow no-excuse, in-person early voting during this pandemic year. Arkansas is the only one of the four neighboring states to allow both no-excuse early voting in person and by mail, according to the study.

None of Mississippi’s Republican legislative leadership advocated for allowing all Mississippians to vote early this year because of safety concerns related to COVID-19. No excuse early voting also was not advocated by Gov. Tate Reeves nor Secretary of State Michael Watson, who oversees state elections.

READ MORE: Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Speaker Philip Gunn once supported early voting. Why did they retreat during COVID-19?

In addition, Watson has said there will be no state mask mandate at the polls on Election Day. All have said that the existing law, combined with the language giving people in quarantine the right to vote early and the personal protection equipment provided at the precincts, will ensure safe elections.

Reeves pointed out there have been special elections for state legislative seats, and to his knowledge, those have been conducted safely.

“I am fully confident on Election Day in early November that will be the case,” Reeves recently said.

More than 1 million Mississippians are expected to vote this November. The Democracy Initiative study projected that a record 160 million people may vote nationwide this year.

“The COVID-19 pandemic will make this election different than any we have ever seen,” the study said. “Due to health concerns about contracting the deadly virus while standing in or entering a crowded polling place, tens of millions of voters will vote in 2020 using a different method than they ever have before.”