Mississippi lawmakers, in the final two weeks of the 2023 legislative session, will hammer out details of a major election bill that could, among other things, give state officials power to purge “inactive” voters from the registered voter rolls.
Two other major election bills have already passed and await signature or veto from Gov. Tate Reeves.
Mississippi Today compiled an update below of the bill that’s still alive and summaries of the two bills that have already been sent to the governor.
House Bill 1310
The Senate has stripped from an elections bill a House provision that restored voting rights to military veterans convicted of felonies.
The provision restoring suffrage to veterans who had completed their sentence was removed in the Senate Elections Committee chaired by Sen. Jeff Tate, R-Meridian. The bill still provides a mechanism to remove registered voters from the rolls if they do not vote within a specified period of time or perform other functions related to their voter registration, such as responding to jury duty.
While the Senate removed the language giving the right to vote back to veterans, that language remains alive in the process as House and Senate leaders try to hammer out the differences between the two chambers on House Bill 1310.
But it is unlikely that the House leadership will try during the negotiations process to have the provision restoring voting rights to military veterans included in the final version of the bill. While the amendment restoring voting rights for veterans offered by Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, was approved overwhelmingly by the full membership during a floor vote, it was opposed by House leaders.
Rep. Brent Powell, R-Brandon, is the lead author on the legislation and will be one of the leaders working to hammer out a difference between the House and Senate versions of the bill. He said the Senate contends the language granting voting rights to veterans is unconstitutional, though it has long been the policy of the Legislature and never challenged that voting rights could be restored to large groups of people, such as veterans, without changing the felony disenfranchisement language in the Mississippi Constitution. After World War II the Legislature did just that — restore voting rights to veterans — without amending the constitution.
“I will ask them (Senate negotiators) about it, but I am not really for it,” said Powell, who opposed restoring voting rights to veterans convicted of felonies when it was offered on the House floor.
Mississippi is one of a handful of states — fewer than 10 — that do not restore the right to vote to all people convicted of a felony at some point after they complete their sentence. A challenge to the felony disenfranchisement provision of the Mississippi Constitution is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The portion of the bill that House and Senate leaders support would have the potential to remove registered voters from the poll books. Under the provision, people who do not vote during a two-year period will be placed on an inactive list and can only vote via affidavit, meaning election officials must take action to officially accept the ballot before it can be counted. To regain unencumbered voting rights, the person would have to take affirmative action, such as returning a confirmation card or responding to jury duty or voting during the next two years. If they do none of those things during the two-year period, they are removed from the rolls and must re-register to vote.
As the bill was debated, many Democrats and a handful of Republicans expressed reservations about removing people from the rolls for not voting. Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, said legislative leaders were taking drastic action to remove people from the rolls without providing any examples of the voter fraud they were trying to prevent.
“The right to vote includes the right not to vote,” said Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson.
Tate said, “Every vote is precious. So one fraudulent vote is just as bad (or) as precious as one (good) vote. What we want to do is clean up the voter rolls. When we have people on the rolls by name only and they are not actually living there, that is a vessel for fraud. And yes, there is voter fraud. What this does is give our local election officials another tool to clean up their rolls.”
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said there are many people who are on the rolls, but only vote on occasion.
He pointed out a predominantly African American precinct in Amory where normally between 400 and 500 people vote. But in 2008 when Barack Obama was running for president more than 800 turned out to vote in the election where an African American was elected president for the first time in the nation’s history.
“How could you tell those people they are not allowed to vote?” he asked. Bryan added he is sure the same phenomenon in different precincts happened when Donald Trump was on the ballot. He said there are registered voters who do not vote because they are not enamored by the candidates on the ballot, but they should not be denied the right to vote when they are excited by someone on the ballot.
He said the bill had the potential to hurt people who are registered and eligible to vote, but only do so sporadically.
The bill also gives Secretary of State Michael Watson the authority to perform election audits and submit reports in all 82 counties during two election cycles — the 2023 statewide election and 2024 presidential election.
Senate Bill 2358
Two other election bills already are heading to the governor, who is expected to sign them into law.
Senate Bill 2358, authored by Tate, would prohibit the practice of a third party collecting a voter’s absentee ballot and delivering it to a clerk’s office or voting precinct. In some states, this practice has become widespread and supporters of the ban say it opens the process to election fraud by campaign operatives harvesting absentee ballots.
But opponents of the measure, mostly Democrats in both chambers, said it’s aimed at voter suppression and is a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist in Mississippi. They also raised concerns it would stifle voting by the military, elderly people, people in nursing homes or disabled people who more often vote absentee.
If signed into law, the bill would only allow U.S. Postal Service or common carriers; election workers doing their official duties; or family, household members or caregivers of the absentee voter to deliver ballots.
Slightly different versions of the measure had passed the House 73-44, and Senate 37-15, on mostly party line votes.
Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville, attempted to kill the bill with a motion on the House floor, saying, “This is a bad bill, people.”
“This is oppressing people’s rights to vote in a democracy,” Bailey said. “This is making innocent people criminals … Everybody stands up here and salutes any time you say military, but then this is going to hurt the military, senior citizens and disabled … What is wrong with us?”
House Bill 1306
A measure that passed Wednesday would prohibit people from being on the ballot for elected office in Mississippi if they have failed to file campaign finance reports. House Bill 1306 would require a candidate to have filed any required campaign finance reports for the last five years in order to be eligible to be on the ballot.
The measure also included a provision prohibiting any unauthorized person from requesting an absentee ballot for someone else — making it a voter fraud crime punishable by a fine of $500 to $5,000 or being jailed up to a year. This provision drew much debate before the House voted 73-37 to send it to the governor. The Senate had passed it 52-0.
Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, questioned whether this measure is “an attempt to railroad people in nursing homes or who are disabled” or otherwise unable to get their own absentee ballot from voting. He questioned whether a nursing home director could get absentee ballots from a county clerk for residents of the home.
House Elections Chairman Price Wallace, R-Mendenhall, responded, “That is not the intent of this bill,” and said that if nursing home residents requested a director or other caregiver get them a ballot there would be no problem. “But if that person running that nursing home does that without them asking for it, it’s fraudulent.”