New rule ensures election officials will inform Mississippians of problems with mail-in ballots

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

Rogers McClellan votes during the 2018 Mississippi Primary Election at Christ United Methodist Church on Tuesday, June 5, 2018.

Mississippians who vote by mail will be notified of problems with their ballots and given an opportunity to correct them under a new rule adopted by Secretary of State Michael Watson after a federal lawsuit was filed against him.

The federal lawsuit, which was filed in August and sought to expand early voting opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic, was dismissed Tuesday by U.S. Judge Daniel Jordan III. But before the lawsuit was dismissed, Watson, who oversees state elections and was a defendant in the suit, adopted the rule.

Voters must receive correspondence from election officials about problems with the signature verification on the absentee ballot, and the voter will have 10 days to correct it. The voter should be provided an “absentee cure form” to correct the problem.

In addition to the absentee rule, election officials must provide curbside voting opportunities for people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or who have been exposed to the coronavirus.

“We are pleased that Mississippi has adopted procedures that will protect voters from having their ballots arbitrarily rejected,” said Jennifer Nwachukwu, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “Just because a record number of voters in Mississippi will vote by mail this year does not mean there needs to be a record number of disenfranchised voters. This is a key victory in protecting the integrity of our election and ensuring the voice of the people is heard.”

READ MORE: Mississippi is poised to break absentee voting record in 2020 election.

A news release from the groups filing the lawsuit — the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Southern Poverty Law Center and others — said they anticipate the changes imposed by Watson to remain in effect after the pandemic is over.

Two lawsuits have been filed this year in efforts to expand early voting opportunities in the state for people who want to avoid crowded precincts on Election Day. The lawsuits have not been successful in ensuring all Mississippians can vote early.

The Legislature amended state law earlier this year, ensuring that people under a physician-imposed quarantine because of the coronavirus or people who are caretakers for those under a quarantine could vote early. But, according to the Democracy Initiative, Mississippi is the only state not to allow all voters to vote early during the pandemic.

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

Under state law, Mississippians can vote early in most cases only if they are elderly, away from home on Election Day or disabled. Mississippi is the only state to mandate that a mail-in ballot and an application for a mail-in ballot be notarized.

State officials, including Gov. Tate Reeves, have maintained that people will be able to vote safely at the polls on Nov. 3.

Watson’s office has said the wearing of masks “will be strongly encouraged” but not mandated at the polls, and the poll workers will wear masks and other personal protection equipment. In addition, sanitizer will be available at the polls as well as special pens or styli to sign in and mark the ballot.

“These will be the cleanest and safest precincts Mississippi voters have ever seen,” Watson said earlier this year.

Watson’s office did not immediately respond to the announcement from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center about the election changes he had imposed.