Wednesday, October 14, 2020
Absentee voting is underway now. Because state law prohibits most Mississippians from voting early or by mail, long lines at crowded polling places are likely on Election Day.
It didn't have to be this way.
This will be the highest voter turnout in four years, with races for president, U.S. senator and the state flag on the ballot. All Mississippians need to be able to vote and vote safely. We need to be prepared. Instead, we have seen a complete failure to deal with Mississippi's restrictive voting laws, even in the face of a pandemic.
For years and again last week, I have proposed common-sense election reforms that most Americans enjoy: online voter registration (more than 40 states); no excuse early voting in person (more than 40 states); and restoration of suffrage after a person completes his/her sentence (40 states). These measures have failed in Mississippi each year.
This year, with COVID-19 raging, I offered two simple solutions to be prepared for Election Day: Let every Mississippi voter cast a ballot early in person (showing Voter ID as the law requires) and improve our absentee voting-by-mail process for those currently eligible.These proposals were all rejected.
If you are under 65, not disabled, not under a "physician-imposed quarantine" and not away from your home county on Election Day, you will be standing in line at the polls.
You cannot vote early. You cannot vote by mail. Concern about COVID-19 is not a legal excuse.
Lines will be long, and people will be forced to wait. Polling places are often crowded. Gov. Tate Reeves' most recent order prohibits group gatherings of more than 20 people indoors. And poll workers, who work 14-hour days on Election Day, are usually older.
If you are a senior citizen and choose to vote by mail from home, you must request an absentee-ballot application from your Circuit Clerk, have it notarized by a notary public, mail it in, receive your absentee ballot, have it notarized by a notary public and mail it in. Your ballot must be postmarked by Election Day to count.
Mississippi is the only state in the nation that requires both the absentee application and ballot envelope to be notarized. Republicans rejected our efforts to change this procedure.
Some have criticized vote-by-mail in other states (five states have entirely vote-by-mail elections). To be clear: No one in Mississippi has proposed mailing ballots to every person on the voter rolls. Republicans and Democrats know the rolls are inflated in many counties. We have proposed that when a citizen initiates the process of voting absentee by mail that the process be convenient and safe. And, clearly, demand for vote-by-mail would decrease if citizens could vote early in person.
In short, in Mississippi the voting process is not designed to be user-friendly or encourage participation. We have made it more difficult for citizens to vote than any other state. If we say we want "to run state government like a business," our election officials should commit to the business tenet that the customer is always right. The voter is the customer, and she wants better customer service.
A lawsuit is pending in federal court to achieve what I proposed during the session. This would not have been necessary if the Legislature had been proactive and addressed obvious problems.
Regardless of who you will vote for, none of us should want any Mississippian to have difficulty casting his or her ballot. None of us want to say "I told you so" if problems occur on Election Day. None of us prefer to have our state's problems solved in court.
The bottom line is make a plan to vote now. If you have any questions about voting, please call your Circuit Clerk today. They can answer your questions concerning absentee voting (if you qualify) and steps you need to take. Don't wait until the last minute.
It is past time for Mississippi to change our voting laws to ensure that every Mississippian can vote and vote safely in our elections. Until then, voters need to plan ahead—because their state government didn't.
Sen. David Blount represents District 29 (Hinds County) in the State Senate. Prior to being elected in 2007, he worked for 13 years for two Mississippi secretaries of state. He is vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus and serves on the Senate Elections Committee.
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the JFP.