Time to Protect Mississippi Voters from the Pandemic, Says Mississippi Center for Justice and ACLU

The state of Mississippi wants you to stand in line with a bunch of coughing strangers to vote this November, even amid a pandemic that is on track to kill 200,000 Americans by Halloween.

Mississippi leaders currently only allow state residents to vote absentee if they are over the age of 65, permanently disabled, temporarily disabled or under doctor-mandated quarantine. This is problematic, or course, to anybody under the age 65 who is not disabled, but who still does not want to risk the possibility of being murdered by a virus, or debilitated for months by the low-energy drain of Covid-19’s infamous virus fatigue.

You can still vote in-person outside of Election Day down at your circuit clerk’s office, but only if your work schedule won’t allow you to vote during working hours on Election Day, or if you will be out of town on that day. Military personnel have their own exclusions.

Legislators—who bravely ducked out of much of the legislative session specifically to avoid contracting Covid-19—generously amended state law this year to expand the state’s “temporary physical disability” category for absentee voting to include any voter “under a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19 during the year 2020 or is caring for a dependent who is under a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19.”

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, called the Covid-19-related vote changes “totally inadequate.”

“There’s virtually no significant changes to conducting an election in a pandemic,” Blount told reporters. “Whether we have a spike in the fall or not, we need to improve the vote-by-mail process for all voters, we need to expand vote-by-mail in a pandemic year. We need to have more early voting in a pandemic year. More than 40 states have early voting all the time.”

The ability to vote under a physician-imposed quarantine is not enough for other state residents who are under no doctor’s order and would like to keep it that way.

“Mississippians should not have to risk exposure to a deadly virus in order to vote,” said Theresa Lee, staff attorney for ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, which joined the Mississippi Center for Justice, and the ACLU of Mississippi in filing a lawsuit to dispense with legislators’ “doctor’s orders” requirement.

The two groups filed their suit in early August. Plaintiffs seized upon a statement by Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson claiming that he does “not believe voters should have to choose between casting a ballot and risking their own health.” They say they agree with Watson, and filed a suit for declaratory judgement regarding the meaning of the law that state legislators tweaked this year.

As it currently stands, the tweak only serves voters who were willing to pay for a doctor’s orders. Groups argue, however that a doctor’s order shouldn’t be necessary if the Mississippi Department of Health (MDH) already declares that people “with a chronic illness such as heart disease, diabetes, or lung disease” and people who otherwise are “in poor health” should “stay home as much as possible.” The department also advises that all people—even the healthy ones—should “[a]void large social gatherings and community events” and “[f]ollow restrictions on indoor and outdoor gathering sizes.”

Since MDH is allegedly a department full of health professionals, attorney Rob McDuff, who is director of the Mississippi Center for Justice’s George Riley Impact Litigation Initiative, says MDH’s opinion is as good as that of any doctor.

“The history surrounding the amendment this past summer makes two things clear: first, voters are allowed to make their own decisions about whether to vote absentee in light of public health guidance, and second, voters may choose to vote absentee if they are afraid of contracting COVID-19 by voting in person on Election Day,” McDuff says.

The lawsuit lists eight plaintiffs, including 44-year-old registered Hinds County voter Joy Parikh, who has severe asthma. Parikh wants to vote absentee in the November general election but only meets the statutory excuse for a disability in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. She worries that her preexisting health condition puts her at a higher risk of severe illness or death if she contracts COVID-19.

Supporters of the suit complain that Parikh and the other plaintiffs shouldn’t even be fighting this fight. Other states, they say, have already gotten onboard with protecting their voters. Mississippi, however, joins Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas as one of the “Floundering Four” states that still require in-person voting, according to Represent Us, a national non-profit that promotes mail-in voting. It remains a holdout even as neighboring Georgia sent out requests for absentee ballots to all registered voters during that state’s primary.

If you think it is a coincidence that the holdouts are southern states with a history of Jim Crow abuse and a penchant for anti-democracy, it isn’t. Mississippi’s restrictive vote requirements are a natural outcome of its centuries-old practice of restricting African-American participation. In fact, mail in restrictions join Jim Crow-era laws as a means to tamp down voter turnout. The state also maintains Jim Crow era vote restrictions such as the one disenfranchising people convicted of certain crimes long after they’ve paid their debt to society, and another requiring statewide candidates to win the majority of the state electoral vote, in addition to the majority of the popular vote. Execrable racists inserted both of these laws into the state’s 1890 constitution in order to reverse democratic gains during Reconstruction.

Critics say the state’s old racist laws evolved perfectly to suit one political party over another, with politicos complaining that Republican legislators now wield the laws to facilitate voting among people who typically vote Republican. Mississippi’s absentee-voting requirements, for example, allow anyone over the age of 65 to vote absentee without an excuse—and it just so happens that seniors tend to prefer Republican candidates.

President Donald Trump even made the mistake of coming out and saying that expanding the mail-in vote would likely increase vote participation and hurt the Republican Party.

“Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans,” Trump said in a Tweet, despite having resorted to absentee ballot voting twice himself.

Vangela M. Wade, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice said it was time to keep the health of voters in consideration, especially considering the encroaching danger posed by the expanding pandemic.

“Over the last month, Mississippi has proven to be a consistent COVID-19 hot spot with the numbers of infections and deaths increasing, not decreasing. Any requirement that citizens gather in polling places to cast their ballots would show a callous disregard for the health of our communities that would likely chill the voting process resulting in constructive disenfranchisement of thousands,” Wade said.

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