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Parham, Co-Defendants File for Injunction Against Watson, Fitch to Allow Absentee Ballots

Cynthia Parham, 61, of Oxford, Miss., is suing Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson and Attorney General Lynn Fitch for the right to vote absentee in November's election. She has as diabetes, heart and kidney disease, all of which increase her COVID-19 risks. Now she and other voters want an injunction. Courtesy Cynthia Parham

Cynthia Parham, a 61-year old Black woman from Oxford, Miss., could be closer to getting the right to vote absentee this year. Today, the Lawyers’ Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed for a preliminary injunction in the case Parham vs. Watson on behalf of lead plaintiff Parham to stop co-defendants Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson and Attorney General Lynn Fitch from denying absentee ballots to people with conditions making them more likely to suffer a serious COVID-19 infection.

Mississippi’s eligibility requirements to vote by absentee ballot are unconstitutional and must immediately be waived for the duration of the pandemic,” the Lawyers’ Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Center announced today.

The plaintiffs are filing the preliminary injunction aiming to immediately curtail the state’s excuse and double-notarization requirements for absentee ballots, as the Mississippi Free Press detailed Tuesday in an in-depth report about the State’s efforts to limit absentee voting this year.

A preliminary injunction is a temporary court order issued prior to a final judgment that, in this case, would provide immediate judicial clarity over the constitutionality of the state’s absentee eligibility requirements in regard to those wishing to vote absentee because of a legitimate fear of contracting COVID-19. 

In order for a preliminary injunction to be granted, plaintiffs must currently have “a substantial threat of immediate and irreparable harm.” The plaintiffs argue that “the burden imposed by the (COVID-19 absentee ballot) Excuse Requirement is substantial because it “forces voters to make the untenable …  choice between exercising their right to vote and placing themselves at risk of contracting a potentially terminal disease.”

Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson (pictured), along with Attorney General Lynn Fitch, are targets of a new legal demand for an injunction to stop them from blocking absentee ballots for Mississippi voters with underlying conditions that make serious COVID-19 infection or death more likely. Courtesy Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office

The plaintiffs believe a preliminary injunction is also necessary due to the Nov. 3 Election Day and voting deadlines quickly approaching. Voters could request absentee-ballot request forms starting on Sept. 4, and absentee ballots will become available on Sept. 21. Voters must have both the form and the ballot notarized under current law, which is not required in other U.S. states.

The preliminary injunction comes in tandem with the Parham vs. Watson lawsuit filed on Aug. 26 that seeks “a permanent injunction against the Excuse and Notarization requirements, and an effective notice and cure process when election officials believe there is an inconsistency with a voter’s signature.” 

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.

“While other states have made significant progress in expanding voting accessibility during pandemic conditions, Mississippi is relentless in keeping its overly burdensome absentee-voting process, which will force Mississippians to choose between their health and their vote,” Caren Short, senior staff attorney for the SPLC, said today in a statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a related lawsuit on Aug. 11 against Secretary of State Watson.  That action is “seeking a ruling from the court clarifying that all voters who are following public health guidance to avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19 may invoke the ‘temporary physical disability’ reason to vote absentee.” 

Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Owens ruled in that lawsuit on Sept. 2 that “[a]ll Mississippi voters with “underlying medical conditions placing them at risk of severe COVID-19 illness or death” will be allowed to vote absentee in November’s election.” 

Watson and Attorney General Fitch filed an appeal of Owens’ decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court. In a statement to the Mississippi Free Press yesterday, Watson said: “The appeal is an effort to receive clarification for our Circuit Clerks, so they know exactly what does and does not equate to a ‘temporary disability’ under the statute, with the ultimate goal being the consistent application of the term for every Mississippi voter.”

This is Part 2 in an MFP series on voter integrity and access in Mississippi leading up to Election Day 2020.

Also see: Solutions: How To Avoid Voter Suppression In Mississippi This Election Day

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