With their notorious history of voter disenfranchisement and suppression, southern elections have previously been subject to federal review, with the states largely unable to pass voting laws without the “preclearance” of the national government.
That changed with the landmark Shelby County vs. Holder decision in 2013, which overturned oversight provisions of the 1965 Voting Right Act.
In writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts remarked that such oversight was no longer necessary, as “racial disparity […] was compelling evidence justifying the preclearance remedy and the coverage formula. There is no longer such a disparity.” Roberts apparently felt that the lack of racial disparity was unrelated to the erstwhile reviews of southern elections, and southern states again regained control of their own electoral processes.
In the seven years since the Holder decision, Mississippi has closed 6% of its precincts, a total loss of 120 polling places across the state. The two counties that have experienced the largest precinct loss since Shelby County vs. Holder are also the two most populous counties in the state: Hinds and Harrison, each with a population well over 200,000.
Hinds County’s 108 precincts serve nearly 162,000 registered voters across Jackson proper—Utica, Terry, Bolton, Raymond, Clinton, Learned, Edwards and Brownsville—but the burden of servicing voters is not evenly distributed across the polling locations. Jackson’s Precinct 2 has just 339 active voters, and the Cayuga location is not far behind, with 355 voters given the opportunity to cast their ballots at Belmont Baptist Church.
Not every Hinds County precinct should expect such short lines, however, as the vast majority of precincts serve at least a thousand voters, with 16 locations having voter rolls of over 2,000. The community of Byram, south of Jackson, feels this imbalance most intensely, as its four polling locations serve a combined 9,975 voters—a staggering 6% of the entire Hinds County population and 4% of its total Black population.
Harrison County, too, suffers from imbalanced polling places, with its 132,000 voters divided among just 54 precincts. North Bay, the county’s largest precinct, has more than 7,000 active voters—22 times the amount of voters served by the county’s smallest precinct, Riceville, which has just 316.
Given that Harrison County has a population density of just 326 persons per square mile, voters across Biloxi, D’Iberville, Saucier, Gulfport, Pass Christian and Long Beach are forced to travel to arrive at their already-crowded precincts, with average voter rolls totaling nearly 2,500.
Though a dozen precinct closures over the period of seven years in both Hinds and Harrison counties does not at first seem significant, a closer examination of actual data and a consideration of the very real Missisippians who are affected by such closures reveal that Mississippi has embarked on a disturbing trend, forcing its voters to drive longer distances and to wait in longer lines to cast their ballots.
With the 2020 election coming during a statewide spike in COVID-19 cases, longer distances from home and longer voter queues, voters must make a difficult decision: Is voting worth the potential harm to myself, and if it is, what cost will my ballot have?
Many voters have answered this question with absentee ballots, as the state does not offer the early voting options common in other states. A week ahead of the election, Mississippi voters had requested more than 169,000 absentee ballots, already soundly shattering the 103,000 collected during the 2016 election. By Election eve, the Mississippi Free Press reported that many counties were shattering absentee-ballot records, with two majority-Black counties—Sunflower and Washington counties, both in the Delta—nearly quadrupling their 2016 absentee totals.
While Mississippi residents must provide an excuse in order to vote absentee, the secretary of state’s office broadened its definition of temporary or permanent disability, which is one of the permissible reasons to request an absentee ballot in Mississippi. This definition now “includes, but is not limited to, those who are under a physician-imposed quarantine, or those who are caring for a dependent who is under a physician-imposed quarantine, due to COVID-19.”
Even taking advantage of this clause did not spare Mississippians from voter lines altogether, with voters and canvassers on social media sharing photos and videos of lines stretching around city blocks, proving that Mississippians have decided that voting in 2020 is worth the risk.
This story and the MFP voting solution circles are part of the MFP’s Mississippi Trusted Elections Project, focusing on access to the polls and voting access in Mississippi. Visit the site to view several infographics and continually updated maps of voting precincts, absentee vote totals and precinct changes across Mississippi. The American Press Institute provided funding for this work. Please write [email protected] to participate in post-election solution circles in search of solutions for voting problems in Mississippi or to send story tips about problems you encounter during the 2020 election season.