Leaders of the BLM Sipp march in downtown Jackson in June 2020 were all college students in Mississippi. Secretary of State Michael Watson questioned in late March and early April 2021 whether “woke” college students should have easy access to voting and whether they’re “competent” and informed enough to vote. Photo by Taylor Turnage

Professors to Watson: Don’t Use ‘Tired, Political Dog Whistle’ to Disparage Students

Last week, Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson made disparaging comments about college and university students and their capacity to exercise their constitutional right to vote. As Mississippi college professors and advocates for good government, we are disappointed by Secretary Watson’s statements and condemn them in no uncertain terms.

Secretary Watson used a tired, political dog whistle to claim that “woke” students, whom he implies do not deserve to vote and might, therefore, improperly benefit from the For the People Act, a proposed federal law that would broaden accessibility to voting around the country. 

His intended target was clearly more progressive voters on campuses across the state, while ignoring the fact that young people of all political persuasions attend our colleges and universities. In addition, his assumption that young people do not want to vote is demeaning when, as a state leader, he should be telling college students how important their vote is. By creating an atmosphere and erecting obstacles that discourage young people from voting, Secretary Watson robs our state of the engaged future voters Mississippi needs to prosper.

We would argue that only by encouraging our young people to engage in the political process and become active voters early in their lives can we guarantee that our democracy will remain healthy and vibrant into the future.

Secretary of State Michael Watson has come under fire in Mississippi and nationally since Ashton Pittman of the Mississippi Free Press reported his WLOX comments about young people voting, which had previously flown under the radar. Photo by Ashton Pittman

We do not want to see Secretary Watson join in a kind of fear mongering that has recently risen to prominence, especially in conservative circles after the November 2020 elections. The idea is simple: For some politicians, restricting the right to vote, they believe, gives them a better chance to win elections rather than a full and fair accounting of all eligible voters at the ballot box. 

This is the same tactic that some of these leaders used to claim that voter fraud is a serious problem despite not having any evidence to support such a stance or that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election. By all objective standards, both claims are absurd, just as is Secretary Watson’s assertions about college students in Mississippi.

We believe in the ability of the people of Mississippi to make informed decisions about their elected leaders, including young people who are becoming active voters for the first time in their lives. They should be encouraged to exercise their constitutional right, not derided with a politicized assault that assumes the worst about them.

As Mississippi’s Secretary of State, Michael Watson is responsible for ensuring that we have free and fair elections. His comments last week call into question whether he is as committed to the responsibilities of his office as he is to his politics.

The Mississippi Free Press invites Secretary of State Michael Watson to write an opinion piece responding to the above column. Email [email protected].

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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