Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson was put on notice back in June during a joint meeting with the House Elections Committee, and it seems few people know about it.If you don’t know Watson’s background here’s a bit about him: He won the secretary of state’s office after serving in the state senate, where he filed numerous bills to make abortion illegal, prosecute and deport undocumented workers and provide tax credits to parents who enroll their kids in largely segregated academy schools. He also served as an attorney to controversial conservative radio talk show personality Chris McDaniels during his failed 2014 U.S. Senate bid.
The Mississippi Secretary of State performs many duties, including campaign finance and non-profit monitoring, as well as business reporting. The office also serves to facilitate elections, despite its top officer opposing many proven strategies to make voting easier (including early voting and same-day voter registration). Watson frames himself as an ideologue who wants to “clean up” elections. Some critics interpret that as double-speak for erecting new voting restrictions and booting legitimate voters off voting rolls.
Not surprisingly, while speaking to members of the Mississippi House and Senate, Watson said some things that alarmed a few audience members. Recently, Watson suggested posting a military presence at polls in future elections, saying he would like to have members of the national guard on hand to pass out anti-viral personal protective equipment like masks and gloves. That suggestion riled meeting members who believed the military presence would unnerve and intimidate some voters.
What really pricked ears, however, was Watson’s suggestion that his office was quietly working to potentially boot Mississippi voters from rolls.
Earlier this year, Watson announced plans to send out “detailed postcards highlighting changes made due to COVID-19, such as how and where to vote.”
Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson, referenced those plans, and asked Watson to explain what else he planned to do with those postcards, namely the ones that bounced back to the sender.
“You mentioned in one of your op-eds that you intended to send informational postcards to voters,” Summers said. “That’s a good thing, but as an election commissioner, I also know that when we send out notifications and they return to our office that could be a trigger for marking those voters inactive. What do you intend on doing with those postcards that are returned to your office?”
Trigger events are a touchy issue with election commissioners. Whenever commissioners or the secretary of state sends out a piece of mail to a voter’s household, that mail runs the risk of returning, for whatever reason. That return could spell trouble for a legitimate voter, however, if they haven’t voted in the past two federal elections or a jury summons was sent to them and it was returned. This amounts to more than one triggering event, and multiple events can put a voter on inactive status and begin the process of purging them. Under some conditions, a secretary of state can purge them altogether. And don’t think the secretary of state isn’t keeping count. The SOS has access to the Statewide Election Management System, which keeps track of these very events.
Watson’s subsequent non-answer to the committee offered no comfort.
“That’s a very good question,” he told Summers. “ … [W]e’ve talked about a couple of things on the postcards with the returned address, or not. Do we return them to their clerks’ offices? Do we return them to the secretary of state? That’s a conversation—and you’re right, that’s a triggering event—but that’s a conversation that is ongoing that we have not finalized yet.”
So, yeah, the Secretary of State of Mississippi—a state with a hideous history of disenfranchising and terrorizingBlack people and other minoritized populations—has, essentially, proposed one more potential step in the process of booting voters from the rolls.
The American Bar Association speaks harshly of states that use voter purges “to try to tailor the electorate and achieve their preferred political outcomes,” and who use methods like “purging people from the rolls solely because they have skipped voting in several consecutive elections and they have not responded to a letter asking them to confirm where they live.”
Republican officials, like Watson, are far more prone to dump voters. A recent report from the nonpartisan Palast Investigative Fund, found that Georgia’s Republican former Secretary-of-State-turned-Governor Brian Kemp—a known enemy of voting—had erroneously removed roughly 313,000 citizens from the state’s voter rolls. Kemp’s office claimed the booted voters had either moved, died or not participated in recent elections, but PIF discovered almost 200,000 of those voters were likely removed even though they did not move from their registration addresses. The report claimed a 63 percent error rate.
The ACLU of Georgia was particularly horrified at Kemp, with Executive Director Andrea Young saying, “There are tens of thousands of Georgia voters who have registered, properly maintained a residence in the same county, and, nevertheless, have had their registration deleted by the state of Georgia.”
The organization added, “Unsurprisingly, the state’s removals will likely affect the most vulnerable: young voters, voters of lower income, and citizens of racial groups that have been denied their sacred right to vote in the past,” and it called upon members of the Georgia General Assembly to “rectify this egregious error.”
It should be known that Watson was part of the legal team seeking to invalidate “illegal and fraudulent” votes of Black citizens in a 2014 U.S. Senate runoff between state Sen. Chris McDaniel and U.S. Republican incumbent Thad Cochran. Cochran had appealed to the Black vote at the height of the run-off in hopes of swaying the election, which he arguably did. Mississippi does not register by party, and it has open primaries. If a registered Mississippi voter didn’t vote in the first primary election, nothing stops her or him from voting however they want in the runoff election.
Watson was one of McDaniel’s attorneys filing an election challenge looking to toss Thad’s Black voters, despite this.
“Many pro-Cochran campaign advertisements in the days leading up to June 24 (runoff) were clearly targeted to the African American community,” McDaniel’s lawyers wrote in one section of the 2014 legal challenge. “The ten counties where Cochran improved most (from the June 3 primary to the June 24 runoff) were those where Blacks make up 69 percent or more of the population.”
“For that reason alone,” they said, “the Hinds County results must be excluded from the statewide results.”
For Mississippians who are understandably nervous about whether they are still a registered voter for the upcoming November elections this year, can check your voting status at https://www.msegov.com/sos/voter_registration/amiregistered/Search. Do it as many times as you like, and immediately call the Secretary of State’s office if you are not in that website’s results page.