Othia McMillian fills out her ballot at the Hinds County Courthouse on Oct. 13, 2020.

While Mississippi’s early voting laws are the most restrictive in the nation this year, it appears those eligible to vote absentee in the 2020 election may be doing so in record numbers.

As of Sunday, more than three weeks before Election Day and the deadline to vote absentee, 58,796 Mississippians had cast absentee ballots, according to the secretary of state’s office, and 91,474 absentee ballots had been requested. In the 2016 presidential election, a total of 102,915 Mississippians voted absentee.

Circuit clerks in several highly populated counties told Mississippi Today that absentee voting appeared higher than ever in 2020, a year featuring a presidential election and the closely contested U.S. Senate race between Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy. 

Typically, high absentee voting numbers portend high in-person voter turnout on election day.

“It’s extremely heavy,” Harrison County Circuit Clerk Connie Ladner said of early voters in the most populous county on the Gulf Coast. “We started on Sept. 21 with a line of people, and it hasn’t stopped since. I’ve been through a lot of presidential elections, and I’ve never seen an absentee turnout like this.”

Ladner said that as of Tuesday, her county had received 8,398 absentee votes, compared to 5,379 total for the 45-day absentee voting period in the 2016 presidential election.

Voters have also stood in long lines outside the circuit clerk’s office in Hinds County, the most populous county in the state and a Democratic stronghold.

Hinds County Circuit Clerk Zach Wallace told Mississippi Today about 5,000 residents there had already voted absentee. In the 2016 presidential election, Hinds County received 5,309 absentee votes.

Early voting has been among the hottest political issues of 2020 as many voters express safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mississippi is the only state in the nation that doesn’t provide all registered voters a way to vote early without having to risk COVID-19 exposure at the polls, according to a report by the Democracy Initiative.

READ MORE: “Practices aimed to suppress the vote”: Mississippi is the only state without early voting for all during pandemic.

To make accommodations for the pandemic, Mississippi lawmakers expanded early voting earlier this year only to 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 they have had not been successful thus far.

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 absentee, either in person or by mail.

“We’re getting our votes in early and getting it done,” said Irish Simmons, with her brother Tyrone Mayes, at the Hinds County Courthouse on Oct. 13, 2020.

State law, however, does not mandate that people wanting to vote early because they are going to be away from their home on Election Day provide proof of their travel plans.

“I tell them if they have an ID, they can vote,” said Union County Circuit Clerk Phyllis Stanford.

“We tell them they have to comply for absentee voting with a valid reason,” said Ladner, the Harrison County circuit clerk. “We refer them to the county website, where we list the reasons, and they call us back and tell us their reason.”

Ladner said voters are basically on the honor system for supplying a reason, but “they’re signing the application under penalty of perjury.”

State law does prevent circuit clerks from sending a mail-in ballot to someone because they say they will be away from home on Election Day. Typically, the circuit clerk would tell that person to drop by their office before Election Day and vote.

Mail-in ballots are reserved for people who are residents and registered voters of the state who are in college away from home, might be working or living for whatever reason for a period of time out of state. In that situation, both the ballot and the ballot application would have to be notarized. 

People with a temporary or permanent disability and their caretakers in some instances can receive a mail-in ballot. People over age 65 can also request a mail-in ballot or vote early in person. There are other, smaller categories of early voters, such as people whose jobs would prevent them from voting on Election Day, and U.S. House and Senate members and their staffs.

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

Ladner said she believes interest in the election, more than the COVID-19 pandemic, is driving the absentee turnout this year.

“I think some may have to do with (the pandemic), but I just think it’s this election, from what we’ve seen and listening to the people coming in,” Ladner said. “We have people who it’s their first time to vote, coming in to vote absentee … With the over 65 crowd, yes, that would be because of COVID-19, but we have a lot of students, lot of people that work out of town, and a great turnout from military.”

Ladner said that of the 8,398 Harrison County absentee ballots so far, 5,749 have been cast in person, and the rest are mail-in. She said her office is sending out about 200-300 mail in ballots a day. Mail in ballots must be postmarked by election day on Nov. 3 to be counted.

Ladner said that recently, a man came in and voted absentee on his 102nd birthday.

In Union County in Northeast Mississippi, 484 people had voted absentee as of Tuesday compared to about 500 for the entire early voting period in 2016.

Sparsely populated Quitman County in the Mississippi Delta may be one of the few counties not experiencing a rush of early voters.

“Compared to other (presidential election years), it’s been a crawl,” Quitman County Circuit Clerk Brenda A. Wiggs said. “We have less than 200 right now – probably around 175 – and we usually get around 900.

“They were telling us to expect more than ever this year – we were figuring around 1,300, but there’s no way we’ll do that at this pace,” Wiggs continued. “I have no idea as to why, other than there aren’t any local elections, and you don’t have the ballot shoppers going around or calling people.”

Wiggs said she’s not aware that the COVID-19 pandemic is having any impact on absentee voting, but noted, “a lot of the people that normally come in (and absentee vote) are not coming in yet.”

Wiggs said most absentee voters do so in person at the clerk’s office because of the difficulty of getting a mail-in ballot notarized.

Wiggs said she provides absentee ballots to anyone who “has a legitimate, lawful reason,” although she said it’s hard to verify whether a reason is true.

“Of course, they can lie to me – believe me, they lie like a dog all the time — but we’ve not had many come in that I questioned at all. Ones that have come in have had legitimate reasons.”

Wiggs said one man requested a ballot because of COVID-19, and she told him that was not a valid excuse unless a doctor had diagnosed him with it. But she said the man was over 65, “so he had a legitimate reason anyway.”

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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.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.