Mississippi voters could have the opportunity to begin voting in person on absentee ballots with no excuse necessary if the Legislature adopts a bill a bipartisan group of three Mississippi House representatives proposed today. Without changes, most Mississippi voters will have to vote in person on Election Day with few exceptions—and without a statewide mask mandate in place as of the governor’s decision yesterday.
The bill would allow Mississippians to begin casting absentee ballots in-person at their circuit clerk’s office beginning Oct. 5.
Rep. Jansen Owen, a Poplarville Republican, filed the legislation with co-sponsors Rep. Kent McCarty, a Hattiesburg Republican, and Rep. Shanda Yates, a Jackson Democrat.
“This year’s election is incredibly important and likely to be one of the highest turnout elections in the history of the state. With that said, we are also in the midst of an incredibly dangerous health crisis that is the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rep. Owen said in a statement this evening. “This bill aims to reduce the number of voters at the precincts on election day, stymie the potential spread of the coronavirus, and allow voters the option to vote safely while keeping the integrity of our election secure.”
Voters will still have to provide a photo ID when they go to vote in person. The bill does not authorize no-excuse absentee voting for mail-in ballots, however.
“No citizens would feel as if they have to choose between casting their ballot and staying safe from the coronavirus. This bill provides a safe and secure alternative to Mississippi voters,” Owen said.
While other states, including Louisiana and Alabama, have made it easier for people to vote absentee, by mail or early amid the pandemic, the Mississippi Legislature declined to take steps like making absentee voting available for all Mississippians when it passed a COVID-19-related bill earlier this year.
The only absentee allowance the State has made for people who do not meet the pre-existing absentee voting requirements (like being 65 or older or out-of-town on Election Day) is for people who either have COVID-19, are caring for someone with COVID-19, or are under a doctor-ordered quarantine.
Earlier this month, the Mississippi Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the Mississippi Center for Justice filed asking the court to allow no-excuse absentee voting because of the dangers in-person voting presents amid a pandemic.
Another lawmaker, Democratic Mississippi House Rep. Jeramey Anderson of Moss Point, filed legislation today that would require voters to wear masks at Mississippi polling places. The move comes a day after Gov. Tate Reeves ended the statewide mask mandate that public-health officials have credited with a decline in COVID-19 cases since early August.
“This is just a precaution. I’m confident that most voters and election officials are going to wear masks in these places, and we want to assure them that they won’t have to put their health at risk to exercise their right to vote because someone else isn’t masked,” Anderson said as he introduced his bill today, which he said would also include “anywhere people are registering to vote or casting absentee ballots.”
During a press conference yesterday, Gov. Reeves acknowledged that the mask mandate’s expiration means voters will not currently be required to wear them to polling locations.
Anderson said he knows the state has “made a lot of progress in curtailing this pandemic.”
Though daily increases in COVID-19 cases remain down from their July 30 peak of 1,775, they also remain elevated above spring and early summer levels. Today, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 696 new novel coronavirus cases, which dwarfs any single day prior to July 2.
“We do not want to endanger that progress or our voters, officials, and poll workers,” Anderson said today. “I am proud of the growing number of Mississippians who are choosing to wear masks whenever they are out and about in our state. Please, everyone, let’s be responsible and mask up.”
Mississippi voters must register to vote at least 30 days before the election. The deadline to register is Oct. 5. More information on registering to vote is available at the secretary of state’s website.