A voter fills out his absentee ballot at the Hinds County Courthouse Saturday in Jackson. Voters waited in a long line for 2 to 3 hours to cast their ballots. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Mississippi election officials cannot prevent people with disabilities from seeking assistance to vote absentee or by mail in the upcoming Aug. 8 party primary election or in the November general election.

The temporary restraining order issued Wednesday by U.S. Judge Henry Wingate of the Southern District of Mississippi said the so-called ballot harvesting ban passed by the 2023 Legislature would be a violation of federal law designed to ensure that people with disabilities and those who cannot read or write have equal access to the ballot box.

Wingate wrote, “When questioned by this court, defendants (state officials) were unable to provide any data illustrating whether Mississippi has a widespread ballot harvesting problem.”

Legislative leaders said the bill was needed to prevent ballot harvesting – gathering absentee ballots of disabled and elderly people and essentially voting for them.

When signing the bill into law, Gov. Tate Reeves said, “Mississippi is taking another step toward upholding the absolute integrity of our election process by banning ballot harvesting across the state. This process is an open invitation for fraud and abuse and can occur without the voter ever even knowing.”

Senate Bill 2358  prohibits anyone other than election officials, postal workers, commercial carriers, household members or caregivers from providing voter assistance and submitting an absentee ballot. Under Mississippi law, only certain people, including the elderly and disabled, can vote early or via mail. But to vote by mail, a person has to go through multiple steps, including requesting a ballot application before receiving the actual ballot.

Wingate said he was concerned the bill did not properly define who could help a person obtain a mail-in ballot and vote. He said the term caregiver was especially ambiguous.

And that uncertainty combined with the criminal penalties for a violation of the new law could deter the estimated 850,00 Mississippian who could be impacted (one in five adults) from voting, Wingate said.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in the Southern District of behalf of a group of Mississippians and the League of Women Voters of Mississippi by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Mississippi Center for Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU-Mississippi and Disability Rights Mississippi.

“Mississippians with disabilities have a right to vote without barriers and to have access to fully participate in all areas of civic life,” said Greta Kemp Martin, litigation director of Disability Rights Mississippi. “We are pleased the court has recognized this and that Mississippians with disabilities can rest assured that they may cast their ballot in whichever manner is most accessible to them, including having the assistance of a person of their own choosing.”  

Kemp Martin is running as the Democratic candidate for attorney general this year against Republican incumbent Lynn Fitch whose office defended the law. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann also has touted the new law in his reelection campaign this year. He called it one of the Legislature’s efforts to ensure the integrity of the ballot.

But others questioned the need for the law.

“Mississippians deserve to vote with confidence,” said Rob McDuff, director of the Impact Litigation Initiative at the Mississippi Center for Justice. “Many people in difficult situations rely on friends and neighbors to help deliver absentee ballots. We are glad that voters with disabilities and language barriers can freely exercise their right to vote with assistance from a person of their choosing.”

Wingate said he would hold additional hearings before deciding whether to permanently strike down the law.

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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.