Hester Jackson-McCray listens as her lawyer speaks during a hearing at the State Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 29. 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Sponsors of the early voting ballot initiative have started gathering signatures even though it is not clear their proposal will make the ballot even if they gather the required number of signatures.

The effort is in question after the state Supreme Court ruled invalid the state’s initiative process back in May.

Kelly Jacobs of DeSoto County, co-chair of MEVI78, the early voting initiative, said the supporters are hopeful that the Legislature will fix the process either in special session this year or the 2022 regular session so that the early voting proposal can be placed on the 2023 ballot.

In a controversial ruling, the state Supreme Court threw out the medical marijuana initiative that was approved by voters in November 2020, and in doing so invalidated the entire initiative process that allows citizens to bypass the Legislature and gather signatures to place an issue on the ballot.

The high court’s ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler and the city of Madison challenging language in the Constitution that resulted in the signatures having to be collected equally from five congressional districts. The state has had four congressional districts since the 2000 Census.

A July 23 letter from the elections division of the Secretary of State’s office instructs the early voting initiative sponsors that the signatures must the gathered “from the congressional districts as they exist at the time a petition is presented for approval,” meaning from four districts.

While the Supreme Court ruling makes the initiative process unworkable, the clock is still running on the early voting initiative and others, such as a recreational marijuana initiative. Initiative supporters have one year to gather the required number of signatures (about 106,000) from the time the initiative language is approved by the Attorney General’s office and by when other required paperwork is completed.

In essence, the supporters had to decide whether to let the initiative die or try to gather the signatures and hope the Legislature approves a plan that allows the signatures being gathered now to count as part of the fix.

“I know you want the convenience of early voting,” said state Rep. Hester Jackson McCray, a Democrat from DeSoto County, who is the sponsor of the initiative. “We have carefully followed the process and after four months have received permission from Secretary of State (Michael) Watson to bring this petition to the people of Mississippi for their signatures.

“We must collect the required 106,109-plus signatures, only from registered voters, in the next 12 month, to be on the November 2023 general election ballot. Let’s get started.”

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

Another option, Jacobs said, is that a robust initiative signature-gathering effort would highlight strong support for early voting, prompting legislators to approve a plan without it having to go to the ballot.

She said the ultimate goal is to allow Mississippians to vote early, in-person with no excuse. In April, the Center for Election Innovation & Research released a study showing that Mississippi is among only six states that do not allow no excuse in-person or mail-in voting or both.

The initiative calls for a minimal of 10 days of early voting.

Any fix by the Legislature to re-instate the initiative process that was invalidated by the Supreme Court also will have to be approved by voters. So, if the Legislature approved a fix in the 2022 session or even before, a special election would also have to be set for 2022 in order for the initiative on early voting to have an opportunity of making the 2023 November election ballot, which has been stated as a goal by the sponsors of the initiative.

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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.