The Mississippi NAACP and the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus announced support today for a ballot initiative, Initiative 78, that would require counties to offer at least 10 days of early, in-person voting.
“The NAACP is proud to support this initiative that will increase access to the ballot box,” Mississippi NAACP First Vice President and Jackson County Chair Curley Clark said in a statement today.
Sen. Angela Turner Ford, the chair of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, explained why her organization is also backing the effort.
“We have to make sure that voting is safe, that it is accessible, and anyone who wants to vote has the opportunity to do so,” she said in the statement with the NAACP today. “Reach out to members of your community and tell them to support the early voting initiative. Many of our constituents have expressed the same sentiment.”
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.”
‘Voting Should Be Easy’
Petitioners, including DeSoto County activist Kelly Jacobs and Mississippi House Rep. Hester Jackson-McCray, who represents District 40 including parts of Southaven and Horn Lake, first filed paperwork to state the process on April 1. Attorney General Lynn Fitch has reviewed the initiative and offered guidance to the petitioners.
“Voting for local, state and national elections should be easy. Placing limits on such an important civil right makes it difficult for the will of the people to be heard,” Jackson-McCray said in today’s announcement. “This is not a partisan issue, it’s logistics plain and simple. Taking off work, finding child care, standing in line for hours in potentially hot or wet weather, are just some of the logistical problems early voting could help.”
The initiative’s backers are hoping to collect 106,190 valid signatures on an expedited time frame starting on June 1 in order to make the 2022 ballot—a process they will only have four months to complete. If they are unable to collect the requisite signatures by October 2021, they plan to continue collecting signatures in order to get the issue on the 2023 ballot.
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.
Voters faced long lines across the state after Mississippi lawmakers failed to significantly absentee or 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. Last month, Secretary Watson drew national criticism after the Mississippi Free Press reported on comments he made warning against automatically registering “woke college students” to vote.
Reeves On Early Voting: ‘Not While I’m Governor!’
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 Initiative 78 is below:
The Mississippi Constitution shall be amended in Article 12 to add Section 244 (B):
Before every election, there shall be no fewer than ten (10) days of early voting, including no fewer than two (2) Saturdays, 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM, at the responsible Clerk’s Office and qualifying early voting locations. There shall be no early voting the day before the election. The responsible County Circuit Clerk or Municipal Clerk for every election shall provide additional 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) registered Municipal Voters according to the latest federal decennial census. Early voting ballots shall be saved using a system that allows ballots to be recounted for election certification and audit. Early voting ballots shall be added to election day ballots and announced as one result. Within sixty (60) days of passage, 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said state officials had approved the initiative for signature collection. That is incorrect. The attorney general’s office has reviewed the initiative and offered guidance to petitioners. We apologize for the error.