Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson has drawn criticism and national attention this week for comments made on WLOX-TV that the automatic voter registration provision of the federal For The People Act would lead to “woke” and “uninformed” college students voting.
“Think about all these woke college university students now who would automatically be registered to vote, whether they wanted to or not,” Watson said during an appearance on News This Week on the Coast television station. “Again, if they didn’t know to opt out, they would be automatically registered to vote. And then they receive this mail-in ballot that they didn’t even know was coming because they didn’t know they registered to vote. You have an uninformed citizen who may not be prepared and ready to vote, automatically it’s forced on them. Hey, go and make a choice and our country’s going to pay for those choices.”
The bill Watson decried during the interview was passed by the House mostly along party lines last month and now faces unified Republican opposition in the Senate. If passed, the bill would represent the largest expansion of federal election rules in decades.
The passing of the bill represents the largest effort by Democrats to push back against Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country pushing legislation that restricts ballot access. The moves at the state level have been criticized by Democrats as blatant power grabs by Republicans using false claims of rampant election fraud in the 2020 presidential election as cover.
If the bill were to become law, states would be required to automatically register eligible voters. These potential voters would not be forced to cast a ballot, as Watson stated. Among other sweeping changes to how elections are conducted, the bill would also expand early voting for federal elections and make it harder to purge people from voter rolls.
Watson supported a bill proposed during the 2021 Legislative Session that would have started the process of purging a voter from Mississippi voter rolls after they failed to cast a ballot for two consecutive election cycles. The legislation passed in the Senate on a party-line vote in February, but was later killed by the House Elections Committee.
During the WLOX interview, Watson joined the chorus of Republican elected officials in characterizing the For The People Act as an unprecedented overreach of the federal government into how states manage their elections. He also acknowledged it as an existential threat to his party, saying “I don’t know if a Republican could win another national election” if the bill were to pass.
Watson’s decrying of certain eligible populations casting a ballot is reminiscent of a comment made by Cindy Hyde-Smith after a campaign event in 2018 where she supported making voting “a little more difficult” for certain “liberal folks.”
“And then they remind me that there’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who that maybe we don’t want to vote,” Hyde-Smith said to supporters. “Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. So I think that’s a great idea.”
Watson’s comment has been criticized by voting rights groups and activists.
“We should be empowering students who take an interest in learning about our political processes and are putting in the effort to make it better and more equitable for everyone,” the civic engagement organization Mississippi Votes said in a statement. “It does all Mississippians a disservice to discount the intelligence of our young people.”