By: Sid Salter
As the national debate roils over whether or not President Donald Trump and some of his appointees are actively setting up the U.S. Postal Service as an intentional impediment to mail-in voting and other early voting efforts, Mississippi is essentially on the sidelines as one few states that haven’t embraced both “no excuse” mail-in voting and early voting initiatives.
The political drama playing out on the national scene is an old one in Mississippi. Generally, Mississippi Republicans have opposed “no excuse” early voting reform efforts as ones that created electoral disadvantages for the GOP. Democrats have long countered that GOP fears of early voting fostering voter fraud are unfounded and lacking in statistically substantial evidence.
At that point, Republicans usually interject the name “Ike Brown” into the discussion. In 2007, U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee found that Brown, then the Noxubee County Democratic Party chairman, had violated the Voting Rights Act by engaging “in improper, and in some instances fraudulent conduct, and committed blatant violations of state election laws for the purpose of diluting white voting strength.”
The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Lee’s ruling in 2009, making the Brown case the first time that the Voting Right Act has been used to successfully allege voter discrimination by blacks against whites. But Brown’s legal team called the prosecution a “concerted effort by the Bush Administration to interfere with the ability of black voters to elect black officials.”
The Fifth Circuit Court panel ruled Brown’s “conduct was undertaken with discriminatory intent: Brown’s statements indicate that he was primarily motivated by race.” There have been several efforts, some led by Republicans, to bring Mississippi into the modern era on “no excuse” early voting and other reforms.
As secretary of state in 2016, current Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann led a substantial package of election reforms. But early voting has remained a political bridge too far among GOP legislators and the well-known Ike Brown model of absentee ballot manipulation remains in no small part an obstacle – despite the lack of widespread, documentable voter fraud in the state.
In Mississippi, the only “early” votes available are absentee ballots that can be requested beginning 45 days prior to an election if the voter meets one of the criteria: The voter will be out of their home county on election day (or the spouse or dependent of that voter), is temporarily or permanently disabled, or voters past age 65. College students and members of the armed forces can usually vote absentee ballots, as can members of the state’s congressional delegation.
There are other absentee voting guidelines. For more information, call the Secretary of State’s Election Hotline at 1-800-829-6786 or visit www.yallvote.sos.ms.gov.
The 2020 Mississippi Legislature tried to make some slight changes to the state’s absentee ballot laws to consider the changes in voter behavior dictated by COVID-19. There are additional absentee ballot “excuses” for COVID-19 patients or those who are caregivers for those patients. They tweaked the deadlines and appropriated $1 million in federal CARES Act funds for help the state prepare for the extra challenges in the state’s November election.
But those changes were not enough as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mississippi Center for Justice, and the state chapter of the ACLU filed suit in Hinds County against Secretary of State Michael Watson and others to force the court to interpret in the state’s absentee ballot “excuses” to allow registered voters with “underlying health conditions” that made them susceptible to COVID-19 eligible for absentee ballots.
While the Trump administration’s Post Office battles over mail-in voting won’t directly involve Mississippi elections, our state continues to generate our own challenges. Despite the postal challenges, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended states encourage voters to cast ballots through the mail.