By Catrina Curtis
While the entire country will vote in an important presidential election in November, Mississippians will also vote on significant state ballot measures, such as legalizing medical marijuana, approving a newly designed state flag, and repealing a Jim Crow-era election law. However, because Mississippi has not fully relaxed its mail-in voting requirements, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there is fear that not enough has been done to protect Mississippians’ ability to vote in such a crucial election.
One driving force behind the fear of strict absentee voting in Mississippi is the state’s large black population. Mississippi has the highest black population in the country, at 37.8%, and COVID-19 disproportionately affects minorities. Some believe the state is particularly failing to protect both its minorities’ health and voice in this year’s critical election. Late this summer, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law along with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, along with the Mississippi Center for Justice, filed separate lawsuits on behalf of Mississippi plaintiffs. Both suits, one at the state level and one at the federal level, allege that the state is failing to adequately protect Mississippians’ constitutional right to vote during the current pandemic.
The lawsuits focus primarily on Mississippi’s strict absentee voting requirements. Previously, Mississippi only allowed absentee voting for those that met strict conditions such as voters over the age of 65, voters who will not be present in their home county on Election Day, voters with a temporary or permanent disability, and voters who have to work during Election Day polling hours.
In July, in response to COVID-19, the state legislature passed a temporary amendment to somewhat relax its absentee voting requirements. The bill clarifies that those with a “temporary or permanent disability,” who are already allowed to vote early by mail, includes “a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19,” as well as anyone who is “caring for a dependent that is under a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19.”
While this amendment allows flexible voting for those who personally have contracted or come into contact with COVID-19, it does not allow for all Mississippians to choose to vote absentee. As the federal and state governments continue to encourage social distancing and avoiding large group gatherings, many Americans feel that voting in-person on Election Day is an unsafe option for them. Currently, all but six states will provide all of their citizens the ability to choose to vote early through mail in this November’s election.
As many Mississippians will likely vote in-person on Election Day, even more pressure has been placed on the state to ensure health and safety measures at its polling places. Most polling places will require masks, provide disposable pens and styluses, and be prepared with disinfectant supplies for frequent sanitizing. Furthermore, polling places will be required to follow state and federal safety guidelines, including limiting the number of voters allowed in each polling place at a time and keeping a six-foot distance between all voters and poll workers when possible.
Due to such measures, many residents do feel comfortable voting in-person on Election Day and do not perceive any injustice in Mississippi’s strict absentee voting laws. In fact, Dr. Birx, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, noted at a recent press conference in Jackson that, “If I can go to Starbucks in the middle of . . . Mississippi that [has] very high [coronavirus] case rates, then I can’t say that it would be different waiting in line at the polls.”
November 3, 2020, presents unprecedented challenges to voting at a time when the vote seems immensely important. Will courts hold, before Election Day, that Mississippi is failing its citizens by not providing no-excuse absentee voting in the middle of a pandemic?