Mississippi faces voting barriers during a historic Senate race

Mississippi’s only woman in Congress is running against the state’s potential first Black senator since Reconstruction. Will COVID-19 get in the way?

By Ko Bragg, The 19th | Oct. 28, 2020

This story was originally published by The 19th. We’re the only newsroom dedicated to writing about gender, politics and policy. Subscribe to our newsletter today.

Camille Green, 20, burst into tears the first time she met Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. In March, right before the pandemic shut most of the country down, she traveled to Washington, D.C., with a nonpartisan, politically engaged student association at Mississippi State University.  

“Most people know that I’m a big Cindy Hyde-Smith fan,” she said. “We met her in Congress, and I boo-hoo cried … It was really embarrassing, because who does that?” 

In a state where White men dominate most political positions — from Congress to governor to the state legislature — Hyde-Smith has been the first, and often the only woman, in her political roles. In 2018, she became the first woman to represent Mississippi in either chamber of Congress. She was the first woman to be elected state senator in her district — first as a Democrat, then as a Republican — a seat she held from 2000 to 2012, when she was elected as the state’s first female commissioner of agriculture and commerce. 

Green grew up as “a big country kid,” and was just a preteen when Hyde-Smith took the helm as agriculture commissioner. She’s always looked up to Hyde-Smith for being the first woman in that role, she said. Green, who is majoring in both political science and the wildlife, fisheries and agriculture program, has toyed with the idea of following in Hyde-Smith’s footsteps as agricultural commissioner. 

“We do get a rep as a state that is so anti-woman with some of our past and some of our laws that we used to have,” Green said. “It’s just so amazing that we have a woman in the Senate, it means a lot. For it to be Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith means even more to me.” 

But, between a string of compliments, Green admitted Hyde-Smith has made some “questionable” remarks, and has a tendency to say things that are easily taken out of context. That was on full view during her first campaign for the Senate.   

In March 2018, after longtime Sen. Thad Chochran stepped down due to health concerns, then-Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to fill the vacant seat. That November, Hyde-Smith ran in a special election against Democrat Mike Espy, who had served as a representative from Mississippi’s 2nd congressional district from 1987 to 1993 — he was the first Black Mississippian to serve in Congress since Reconstruction — and then as U.S. secretary of agriculture under the Clinton administration. 

The 2018 race went to a runoff, giving a Democrat a fighting chance in red Mississippi. However, the historic nature of the race was soon eclipsed by controversy when a video surfaced of Hyde-Smith at a campaign event in Tupelo. 

“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be in the front row,” she said of a cattle rancher standing beside her. Hyde-Smith later categorized the remarks as an “exaggerated expression of regard,” but it landed sorely in the Blackest state in America that faced the most lynchings of any other state. 

The runoff gave Mississippi Democrats a jolt, and with the hanging comment in the national spotlight, an Espy victory might have also signaled a Mississippi on the brink of closing a dark chapter of the state’s history for good. Major donors to Hyde-Smith’s campaign like Google and Walmart asked to be refunded. 

Hyde-Smith won the runoff anyway with a 7-point margin. 

Green shook her head when she got a mailer from the Espy campaign recently that featured the Hyde-Smith’s now-infamous quote. With Mississippi’s history of lynching it got taken out of context, she said, but she also felt the response to the senator’s comment confirmed for people both inside and outside of the state that Mississippi hadn’t progressed. 

“They don’t know the Mississippi that I know, and that so many love and adore,” Green said. “And when things like that happen it’s easy to say, ‘Oh look, they haven’t changed one bit.’” 

Espy and Hyde-Smith are squaring off again, this time during a presidential election in the middle of a pandemic, which has made voting even more challenging. 

Mississippi is the only state that offers in-person voting on Election Day as the only option for all voters, according to the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of 75 civic organizations. Absentee voting is the closest Mississippi has to early voting, which is surging in other states. Those who will be away from their home county on Election Day, residents over the age of 65, and disabled people can vote absentee. This summer, state lawmakers also allowed for anyone under — or caring for someone under — a physician-imposed quarantine to vote via absentee ballot.

More than 190,000 Mississippians have requested absentee ballots in this election, with 142,591 of them received by the state as of Oct. 25. The state is far ahead of the 103,000 absentee ballots counted in 2016. Secretary of State Michael Watson said 113,000 new voters registered before this election.  

Julie Wronski, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi, said in an email that most people in Mississippi will still vote in person on Election Day, but that the lack of a mask mandate at polling places will help depress turnout in a state that already sees low numbers because of hurdles to voting. 

And that could be particularly detrimental to Espy’s campaign. Wronksi says that in general, the voting breakdowns in Mississippi are based predominantly upon race rather than gender — most White people are Republicans, and most Black people are Democrats. Espy’s campaign may be banking on what it’s called a “secret weapon”: a data set of 100,000 Black voters who have not voted since they cast a ballot for President Barack Obama in 2008. Espy lost the runoff by almost 66,000 votes.  

“My sense is that turnout matters for Espy’s chances this year,” Wronksi said. “Things need to align really well for demographic groups most supportive of Espy to turn out in droves. The presidential race, and more nationalized politics, seems to be driving general enthusiasm.” 

Exit poll data from the 2018 special election showed that, overall, Hyde-Smith trended better with male voters, and Espy better with women. Fifty-eight percent of White women voted for Hyde-Smith two years ago compared to 93 percent of Black women, who voted for Espy. There is no exit poll data from the runoff. 

Kim Robinson, 46, said that Hyde-Smith lost ground with her as a Black woman with the public hanging comment, and also her subsequent remarks about voter suppression: In 2018, video surfaced of Hyde-Smith saying it’s a “great idea” to make voting “just a little more difficult” for liberal folks. 

“As women, we’ve been suppressed for a long time,” Robinson said. “I no longer looked at her being elected as a milestone because she was pro so many things I was against. When you talk about lynching and public hangings, those are very sensitive to people that are Black. So, to say that it was a joke or something that you can say in jest, to me, was insulting. I felt insulted as a woman that this was the person that would represent, put forth the best in Mississippi.” 

Robinson likes Espy as a candidate. She feels that he listens to the needs of Mississippians, especially around the health care coverage gap. Espy wants to expand Medicaid; Hyde-Smith does not. 

Health is at the forefront of Robinson’s mind, including in her voting plan, as someone at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus due to pre-existing conditions. She says she thought about going to vote early via absentee at the courthouse, but her daughter, who will be returning from basic training with the Army, will be voting in her first presidential election this year. Robinson wants to share that moment with her. 

“Even though I am high risk, I will go out there with my PPE,” Robinson said. 

Robinson votes in Hinds County, which is home to Jackson, Mississippi’s capital. Over the weekend, video on social media showed voters in long lines outside of the county courthouse waiting to cast their absentee ballots. Seventy-seven percent of Hinds County voted for Espy in the 2018 runoffs. 

Espy has been able to capture national support in a way that Hyde-Smith has not. In the wake of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, Espy raked in $1 million. An analysis by Mississippi Today says Hyde-Smith’s campaign raised less than $3 million through the beginning of October, amounting to less money raised during the 2020 campaign cycle than any sitting U.S. senator who isn’t retiring. 

Karen Augustus, 47, a native of Greenville who now calls Texas home, wants to see the entire Senate swing back to the Democrats. She is one of the out-of-state donors who added to the surge in Espy’s funds. She’s familiar with Espy as a “force” within Mississippi politics, and she likes his record of longtime work with farmers in the Delta, where she’s from. 

Augustus also recognizes the history Hyde-Smith made as her home state’s first woman in Congress, but the senator’s views on abortion and her public support of Confederate history turn her off. It’s important to have women in these spaces, Augustus added, but it has to be the right woman, with the right ideology. 

“I think where she and I kind of have anything in common is gender — I think that ends it,” Augustus said. “For me to go out and give my money to Espy, it was bigger than just, ‘Oh, he’s going to be the first Black senator [from Mississippi]. Not only is he going to make history, he’s the right man to make the history.” 

Anne Twitty, 40, a history professor at the University of Mississippi, found herself in “abject terror” as she filled out her absentee ballot with the “Byzantine” instructions the state provided. The professor will be out of town on Election Day, which qualifies her for voting absentee.

A couple weeks ago she got her ballot, opened it up, glanced over the pages of instructions, and immediately felt like her stomach had jumped into her throat. As a teacher, Twitty said, so much of her life is dedicated to providing the clearest possible instructions to her students. So when the absentee ballot application and the ballot itself, each of which have to be notarized and mailed back separately, came in a single envelope along with long paragraphs of instructions, she was frustrated.

A notary had to witness Twitty fill out her ballot, and both of them had to sign across the flap of the envelope. She knew that she would set aside the time to find a notary and mail everything in before the election, but, she wondered, did it have to be this hard? 

“All these people who, you know, are trying their hardest to do their civic duty, and it’s just made really difficult for them,” Twitty said. “Voting should feel good.” 

But Twitty just feels mad. It’s a sharp contrast to two years ago, when Twitty said she was “really, really fired up.” She canvassed for the Lafayette County Democratic Party, personally knocking on 400 doors. Espy had come close, but still ultimately fell short, so she’s delighted that he’s running again against Hyde-Smith, whom Twitty considers to be an “absolutely ludicrous candidate.” In recent weeks, Hyde-Smith emerged on the campaign trail after near radio silence. She’s refused to debate her opponent, and in at least one instance she walked out of a scheduled media interview. 

“She doesn’t ever seem to really know anything,” Twitty said. “And she won’t debate Mike Espy, again, because I think … she doesn’t have any command of the policies.” 

She hopes her vote makes it safely in the mail. With no ballot tracking in the state, her best bet is to call her circuit clerk’s office and ask if they’ll confirm receipt. 

“That’s yet another thing that I, an individual voter, need to do,” Twitty said. “In 2020, it’s hard enough to remember to do even the basic things. We’ve all got so much on our plates. This entire process just gets that much harder during a pandemic.” 

Twitty takes some relief in the fact that for the first time ever in Mississippi, circuit clerks have to notify voters who filled out absentee ballots incorrectly and give them an opportunity to rectify their vote with a “cure form.” Within a day of a ballot being rejected, voters are supposed to receive notice about the error, and must return an absentee cure form within 10 days of the election. 

Watson, Mississippi’s secretary of state, implemented the “cure” rule after being sued in August for not expanding absentee ballot access or clarifying guidelines on voting during a pandemic. The lawsuit has since been dismissed, but Watson also expanded curbside and open-air voting to those exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, including — but not limited to — coughing, vomiting, headaches, fever, sore throat, congestion or loss of taste or smell. 

The named party in the lawsuit against Watson is Cynthia Parham, a 51-year-old Black woman from Oxford living with her 62-year-old husband who suffers from pulmonary disease. Parham herself also lives with heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and has undergone five heart bypass surgeries and has two stents in her heart. “These health conditions put us at higher risk of contracting, suffering severe complications, and potentially dying from COVID-19,” she wrote in a declaration to the court. Despite all of this, Parham doesn’t qualify to vote absentee. Voting is extremely important to her — people have died for this right — but there’s high risk. 

“If I cannot vote by absentee ballot, I will have to decide whether to vote in person – risking my health and my husband’s health – or not at all,” Parham wrote. “To not vote would be devastating to me.”

The League of Women Voters Mississippi is one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit brought forth by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Christy Wheeler, the co-president of LWVMS, penned a declaration on behalf of her organization, which primarily serves women over the age of 55. 

“Current Mississippi law will disenfranchise thousands of voters — including many of our LWVMS members — if it is not modified to allow citizens to vote safely by absentee ballot during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wheeler wrote. 

In an interview with The 19th, Wheeler was pleased with Watson implementing the “cure” rule, but she remains aggravated that his office refused to make a mask mandate a requirement for voting. A FAQ on the secretary of state’s website says voters will not be denied entry to their polling place for not wearing a face mask. In a press conference on October 27, Watson said it is a constitutional right to vote, but voters cannot be forced to wear a mask. Poll managers have to wear face protection, however. 

“To me that’s just another form of voter intimidation,” Wheeler said. 

Wheeler, who at age 72 has already cast an absentee ballot in person at the circuit clerk’s office, is channeling her energy toward expanding voting in Mississippi during the 2021 legislative session — COVID is not going away any time soon. She said that folks nationwide are angry with the current administration for failure to control the pandemic, and that’s true in Mississippi, too. The governor recently let the statewide mask mandate lapse, and has begun putting it back in place piecemeal in counties with surging cases.  

This anger, Wheeler said, may make for an even more engaged electorate in a year featuring a historic Senate race. 

“I think that the race is even closer now than it was two years ago,” Wheeler said. “And I think the impassioned people are going to the polls … for a variety of reasons. One, they just don’t want to give up their right to vote.” 

This year marked Green’s first time voting in a presidential election. Two weekends before Election Day, she drove three hours from Mississippi State University in Starkville to Lamar County in the southern part of the state. As a student, Green fits into one of the narrow requirements for voting absentee in person in Mississippi. 

“I got in there and got it done and left on cloud nine,” Green said. “I love celebrating our constitutional rights. I can’t wait to one day actually do it on Election Day.” 

In addition to voting for Republican leadership, locally and nationally, she was also excited about some of the amendments on the ballot that she believes will move Mississippi forward. She voted in favor of Amendment 2, which would eradicate a Jim Crow-era provision of the state constitution that requires statewide candidates to win both the popular vote and the most votes in the majority of the House districts. Green also said she voted in support of the state’s proposed new flag design. Earlier this year, lawmakers voted to remove the Confederate emblem from the flag’s canton. Mississippi was the only state in the nation with such insignia in its flag. 

“I was so excited to see the flag change, Green said. “I was really active on my social media about encouraging it and informing people.” Green said she engaged with family members who felt the flag change was an affront to their heritage. She wanted them to understand the flag wasn’t a good image for the state. You can still acknowledge the past, while progressing toward a better future, she said. 

Green considers herself to be a free thinker, who educates herself on the issues, even if she ultimately decides she doesn’t agree with the Republican Party in the end. She thinks it’s a part of being a young Republican, especially in the college setting. For instance, she thinks Amy Coney Barrett is “fabulous,” but she also thinks Mitch McConnell’s decision to rush the vote was hypocritical, even if he did so while acting within the boundaries of his job. “It doesn’t mean there wasn’t egg on our face for what we did back in 2016 as a Republican Party preventing President Obama from filling a Supreme Court seat,” she said.  

By similar logic, she doesn’t hold it against Hyde-Smith for changing parties in recent years. Political views are something that can change over time, and that can mean something as drastic as a party switch, Green reasoned. 

Still, Green takes issue with Espy, less because he’s a Democrat and more because she finds him untrustworthy. As U.S. secretary of agriculture, Espy resigned over an interrogation into accepting improper gifts. Although indicted for the offense in 1997, Espy was acquitted of all charges.

Despite being an unabashed Hyde-Smith supporter, what matters most at the end of the day to Green is seeing Mississippi cared for in Congress. 

“Say he were to win, and he gets in there and he is putting Mississippi first, that’s all I ask for from a candidate,” Green said. “We already get belittled and put last on the list by so many, but on a national scale we need somebody who’s going to go in there and make sure we’re taken care of. And if he gets the job done, then I will be more than happy.”

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey