Mississippians will not be required to wear masks as they enter polling places on Election Day—but poll workers may ask masked voters to momentarily remove their masks to verify their identities. The mask rules are part of a set of COVID-19 “Polling Place Safety” rules that Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson’s office formalized this week.
“A voter, who is not wearing personal protective equipment, must not be barred entry into the polling place due to his/her failure to wear personal protective equipment,” the Oct. 5 polling place safety rules read.
Watson, a Republican, first previewed the updated rules during a press conference on Oct. 2.
“No one can be forced to wear a mask to vote. That is unconstitutional,” Watson claimed, vowing to ensure polling places would be “clean, safe environments.”
Last week, Mississippi House Rep. Jeramey Anderson introduced a bill that would have required masks at polling places after Gov. Tate Reeves allowed his statewide mask mandate to expire on Sept. 30. The House did not consider the bill before the Legislature adjourned over the weekend.
Rep. Anderson: Mask Mandate ‘Would Save Lives’
In a statement to the Mississippi Free Press, Anderson, a Moss Point Democrat, rejected Watson’s claim about the constitutionality of requiring masks at polling places amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I consider Secretary of State Michael Watson a friend and a colleague for whom I have a great deal of respect. In this instance, I just believe he’s wrong,” Anderson said. “If we can ban clothing that bears a campaign message from polling places without violating the Constitution, I believe we can require masks at the same locations. There are many rules and regulations that govern how we vote. This would simply be another one and one that would save lives.”
In Watson’s comments last week, he cited not only the U.S. Constitution, but his political philosophy.
“As a conservative, I think individuals should make the decision on their own. Now, would I suggest they wear a mask? Sure,” Watson said. “But again, that should be a decision they make—not one the government forces them to do.”
The secretary of state’s guidelines do require poll workers, election monitors and volunteers to wear masks, however. At least some polling places will also offer curbside voting. Election officials must also make provisions to allow poll voters to stand at least six feet apart. Health experts warn, however, that standing six feet away from an infected person alone is not foolproof; COVID-19 can be transmitted by aerosol particles that linger in the air, making masks an important preventative measure.
Public-health experts nationwide have warned that crowded polling places on Election Day will increase the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. Other states have taken steps to lessen the burden on Nov. 3, by implementing no-excuse absentee voting, universal mail-in voting and early voting. The Mississippi Legislature declined to take up bills to expand absentee-voting options, though.
Mississippi only allows absentee voting in a limited number of circumstances: when a voter is age 65 or older; when a voter has a temporary or permanent disability; when a voter is in the military and will not be present to vote on election day; when a voter is a college student living on campus; or when a voter will be out of the county, state or country on Election Day.
By Oct. 4, Mississippians had requested 66,495 absentee ballots by Oct. 4—already more than half as many as voters requested for the duration of the 2016 election. Some counties are even further ahead. Watson said in a Facebook update today that requests for absentee ballots this year have already exceeded the entire 2016 total in Jackson County, which includes Pascagoula, Moss Point and Ocean Springs.
For the majority of Mississippi voters who will have to cast their ballots in person on Nov. 3, though, Watson’s guidelines almost guarantee that mask wearers and non-mask wearers alike will line up and vote side-by-side—even if at a distance.
Under Watson’s guidelines, though, poll workers may ask some mask-wearers to remove their masks when they present their photo ID. In 2011, a majority of Mississippi voters approved a Republican-backed ballot initiative that requires all voters to present a photo ID to poll workers when they arrive to vote on Election Day.
“When a voter wearing a facemark is presenting acceptable photo identification … and the poll manager is unable to identify the voter, the poll manager mask ask the voter to step back six (6) feet, in accordance to social distancing guidelines, to briefly lower his/her face mask so the poll manager may identify that the picture on the acceptable photo identification fairly depicts the elector,” Watson’s rules say. “If a physical barrier (sneeze guard) is located between the poll manager and the voter, the voter is not required to step back six (6) feet, but still shall lower his/her face mask for identification purposes.”
Curbside Voting Could Cause Delays
While Watson’s rules do not permit poll workers to bar non-mask wearers from entering the polling place, they do allow poll workers to ask voters who “repeatedly fail to follow social distancing guidelines” of standing six feet apart to vote curbside. Voters who do not feel comfortable voting inside may request to vote curbside, too, Watson’s guidelines say. The option also applies to people who may be experiencing illness.
“When a voter states he/she has had significant exposure to COVID-19 or is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 (including, but not limited to coughing, vomiting, headaches, fever, sore throat, congestion, or loss of taste and/or smell), poll managers may direct the voter to an open-air voting option outside the physical structure of the polling place, or to vote by curbside voting from the voter’s motor vehicle,” the rules say.
When a voter casts their ballot curbside, poll managers “must carry the poll book, the receipt book, and a ballot or voting device to the voter’s motor vehicle or an outside area,” the rules say. But Watson’s guidance suggests that curbside voting could cause delays at polling places and longer wait times for other voters.
“If there are less than three (3) poll managers immediately present within the polling place conducting an election, and a voter wishing to curbside vote arrives, all voting at the polls shall stop until the poll managers conducting the curbside voting return to the polls,” When voting is occurring within the polling places, there shall be at least three (3) poll managers immediately present to conduct the election. Until a minimum of three (3) poll managers are present, the remaining poll manager or poll managers shall ensure the security of the ballot box, the voting devices, and any ballots and election materials.”
Mississippi voters may vote absentee in-person at their local circuit clerk’s office until 5 p.m. on Oct. 31. Those voting by mail have until Election Day, Nov. 3, to mail their ballot. The ballot must be post-marked by Nov. 3 and arrive within five days of the election in order for their vote to count.
Polls are open on Election Day, Nov. 3, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. More information on voting is available at sos.ms.gov/vote.
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