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‘Voting Should Not Be Difficult’: Mississippians Seek 10 Days of Early Voting With New Ballot Initiative

Long polling lines
Hundreds of voters waited for two hours to vote on Election Day 2020 in a line that wrapped from The Mark Apartments, where their precinct was located, and around and past a strip mall. Mississippi is one of the only states that did not offer early voting options, mail-in voting or significantly expand absentee ballot options during the 2020 election. Photo by Nate Schumann/courtesy Jackson Free Press

On Election Day last November, many Mississippians waited for hours in line to cast their ballots at some precincts, requiring some to miss work or find babysitters for their children. Now, a north Mississippi lawmaker and a group of activists have a plan to make democracy more accessible and flexible.

Tomorrow, DeSoto County activist Kelly Jacobs and Rep. Hester Jackson-McCray, who represents District 40 including parts of Southaven and Horn Lake, will gather with organizers inside the Mississippi Capitol at 11:30 a.m. to announce a new ballot initiative that would require counties to offer at least 10 days of early, in-person voting.

“We want to change our Mississippi Constitution so that our government must give us all enough time to vote. Voters want their votes counted and placing a ballot into the voting machine is more reassuring than sticking it into a notarized absentee envelope because they cannot vote in person on a Tuesday,” Jacobs said in a press statement this afternoon.

The proposed ballot initiative says “there shall be no fewer than ten (10) business days of early voting between 8 a.m.-5p.m. before every election, which shall include the two Saturdays before every election at the responsible Clerk’s Office and qualifying early voting precincts.”

Organizers said that the Legislature’s inaction, coupled with Gov. Tate Reeves’ promise to veto any early-voting legislation that arrives on his desk, is why they decided that voters needed to be the ones to decide. Organizers must gather at least 106,190 valid signatures within a 12 month-period in order to get the measure on the 2023 ballot.

Representative Hestor Jackson-McCray poses next to her chair on the Mississippi House floor
“I believe that the people of Mississippi deserve no fewer than 10 days of early voting, so I’m submitting a ballot initiative to let the people try to change our Constitution,” says Mississippi House Rep. Hester Jackson-McCray. Photo courtesy Rep. Hester Jackson-McCray

“In 2020 there were tremendously long lines to vote on Election Day in DeSoto County. Our County Clerk’s office received more than 14,000 absentee ballots. Voting should not be difficult,” Jackson-McCray said. “Long lines discourage voting, and last year, Gov. Reeves stated he would veto early voting legislation. This year there were nine early voting bills submitted, but none of them got out of committee. I believe that the people of Mississippi deserve no fewer than 10 days of early voting, so I’m submitting a ballot initiative to let the people try to change our Constitution.”

Voters faced long lines across the state after Mississippi lawmakers failed to significantly absentee voting or add early voting options as other states did nationwide. Still, Mississippians cast absentee ballots in record numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Election Day, voters in at least one majority-Black Madison County precinct at an apartment complex waited hours to cast their ballots. Months prior, local officials had suddenly moved around 2,000 mostly Black or Hispanic voters out of a majority-white precinct with ample polling stations, parking and room for social distancing and into the one in an apartment clubhouse. The latter had far fewer parking spots, fewer polling stations, and little room for social distancing.

The Mississippi House has passed multiple early voting bills in recent years, though they died in the Senate under then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ leadership as Senate president.

Mississippi is just one of six states that do not offer in-person early voting, alongside Connecticut, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But unlike the Magnolia State, each of the other five states that do not permit in-person early voting either already allowed universal early mail or absentee voting or opted to do so in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

American voter turnout broke records last year, including in Mississippi, but the Magnolia State still lagged behind most other states, coming in at No. 45 with 60% of the voter eligible population casting a ballot compared to 67% nationwide. Only Tennessee, West Virginia, Hawaii, Arkansas and Oklahoma reported lower voter turnout than Mississippi.

Last year, as some national politicians worked to baselessly portray slow voting-counting as a sign of “fraud” or as a problem with “early voting,” Gov. Reeves announced his opposition to early voting in a tweet

“I will do everything in my power to ensure every ballot legally cast in the 2020 election in Mississippi gets counted—no matter how long it takes. But based on what I see in other states today, I will also do everything in my power to make sure universal mail-in voting and no-excuse early voting are not allowed in MS—not while I’m governor! Too much chaos. Only way it’d happen is if many GOP legislators override a veto,” he tweeted.

The full text of the proposed initiative is below:

The Mississippi Constitution shall be amended in Article 12 to add Section 244B: There shall be no fewer than ten (10) business days of early voting 8am-5pm before every election, which shall include the two Saturdays before every election at the responsible Clerk’s Office and qualifying early voting precincts. The responsible County Circuit Clerk or Municipal Clerk for every election shall include more early voting locations based on the number of registered voters: one additional early voting location is required for each increment of thirty thousand (30,000) registered County Voters or ten thousand (10,000) Municipal Voters according to the latest federal decennial census. Early voting ballot totals shall be saved using a system so that ballots can be recounted for election certification and audit. Early voting ballot totals shall be added to election day results before 7pm on election day. The Secretary of State shall promulgate rules and regulations necessary to effectuate early voting, including measures to inform the public about the availability of early voting. If this initiative is approved by the electors, it shall take effect thirty (30) days from the date of the official declaration of the vote by the Secretary of State.

Before supporters can begin collecting signatures, the secretary of state and attorney general must review the proposed initiative and approve it.

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