Sen. David Blount delivered a harsh critique to a Republican plan to let GOP ideologues tamper with Mississippi elections.
“This is nuts,” said Blount, a Jackson senator with strong familiarity with the state’s election process, having worked under former Secretary of State Eric Clark during Clark’s 1995-to-2007 term.
“What this bill would do is it would allow you to select a private company, audit election results, and all of the records from that audit are private and secret?” Blount demanded last week. “How do you have confidence in this audit when you have a private company with private records?”
If passed, Senate Bill 2610 would give Secretary of State Michael Watson the power to hire fraudsters to examine election practices in every county and conduct manual recounts. The bill does not demand Watson have good reasons for his decisions.
Blount and Democrats said the bill, authored by Meridian Republican Jeff Tate, would allow Watson to arbitrarily trigger a recount fiasco similar to the debacles in Arizona and Texas. Arizona Republicans in those states targeted Democratic districts with sham election “audits” in hopes of legitimizing Donald Trump’s bogus claims of voter fraud. The recount uncovered even more Biden votes, but undermined democracy in the process, according to critics. Cyber Ninjas, headed by a goofy QAnon conspiracy nut, devolved into a stupid mess, with Cyber Ninjas employees chasing conspiracy theories while devouring taxpayer money and exposing sensitive voter information. Maricopa County election officials issued a scathing rebuke to almost every Cyber Ninjas claim. Maricopa County Court Judge John Hannah even imposed a $50,000 fine against the company for every day it failed to hand over important documents. The company soon fired its employees and shut its doors.
Trump’s election audit in Texas similarly fell to pieces, as has every audit demanded by Trump acolytes last year. Senator Hob Bryan, D-Amory, described the audits as a shifty effort to tear down the public’s faith in the U.S. political system.
“We’ve had an organized attempt to undermine the election system in this country,” Bryan told the committee on the day of the SB 2610 discussion. “And part of that are the whackos and the nutcases in Arizona that came in with these so-called audits. And that’s what this (bill) looks like to me.”
Supporters of bills like SB 2610 call for “integrity” in elections and argue that giving Watson the power to hire private companies with no obligation to reveal their information or their process to the public is somehow a good way to get that integrity. It does not help when Watson undermines his own credibility, however. As Mississippi’s Chief Elections Officer, Watson’s job is to make voting easier in Mississippi, but Watson has made clear he does not want certain people to vote. He recently argued against automatic registration specifically because dumb college students, who tend to vote Democrat, may find themselves with undeserved power.
“You have an uninformed citizen who may not be prepared and ready to vote, automatically it’s forced on them. Hey, go and make a choice and our country’s going to pay for those choices,” Watson told WLOX.
This is the same Secretary of State that presides over a state with some of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation. Republican lawmakers in Mississippi could not wait to pass a restrictive voter ID law in 2012 when the GOP-led Supreme Court’s gutted federal preclearance in historically racist states in Shelby v. Holder. Mississippi also does not allow no-excuse absentee voting, early voting or mail-in ballots in almost any form, which guarantees that Election Day lines will be long and arduous for congested, Black-majority voting districts. On top of that, Mississippi and Watson both proudly maintain a Jim Crow-era felony disenfranchisement law that blatantly targets Black people. The 1896 case Ratliff v. Beale makes the racist purpose of the state’s felony disenfranchisement rabidly clear:
“… the  convention swept the circle of expedients to obstruct the exercise of (democracy) by the negro race. By reason of its previous condition of servitude and dependence [the black] race had acquired or accentuated certain particularities of habit, of temperament and of character, which clearly distinguished it, as a race, from that of the whites … and its criminal members given rather to furtive offenses than to the robust crimes of the whites. Restrained by the federal constitution from discriminating against the negro race, the convention discriminated against (the race’s) characteristics and the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.”
Racists knew Black people were more likely to be “convicted of bribery, burglary, theft” and other poverty-related crimes, so they inserted a felony disenfranchisement clause targeting those kinds of crimes. Today, new-Jim Crow-era politicians do nothing to remove the law.
Further aggravating suspicion is a concerted GOP effort to plumb for party control rather than integrity. In 2015, Democrat Bo Eaton met Republican Mark Tullos to draw straws after both received an identical number of votes in their district. The draw would decide whether the GOP would have a powerful supermajority over the majority-Black Democratic Party in the House, and Tullos drew the short straw. But Tullos did not accept the offer to draw straws in good faith, and quickly begged his fellow Republicans to remove Eaton after he lost. Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, was the lone Democrat who voted with the GOP to unseat Eaton. Her single vote legitimized what would otherwise have been an all-white power move to crush Black political power in the House. Today Cockerham chairs the House’s influential Judiciary B Committee and has switched from Democrat to “Independent,” possibly because a Republican cannot carry Cockerham’s majority-Black district.
Republicans in the Mississippi House got their 74-seat supermajority that year, and they’ve since used it to pass painful tax cuts and jeopardize rural hospitals with Medicaid blocks. That power grab fits a pattern of cynical political seizures that look better when couched in “integrity”. But it’s not “integrity” when 20 percent of African Americans in Mississippi can’t vote because of a Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement law. Neither is it “integrity” that drives a Black voter to give up waiting in a two-hour voting line and go to work. It certainly isn’t “integrity” that makes it impossible for Black voters to mail their vote in, or vote early to avoid those long lines. Nor is it “integrity” when an election official tosses a valid voter’s ballot because of his or her personal feelings on the way that voter’s signature looks.
In a successful democracy we tend to call that kind of integrity “vote theft” or “voter suppression” or simply downright undemocratic.