JACKSON • The Mississippi Supreme Court on Friday ruled that not all voters at a higher risk from COVID-19 due to pre-existing health conditions can vote by an absentee ballot in the upcoming November election.
In a 5-2 decision, the state’s top court reversed a previous decision from a Hinds County Chancery Court judge who ruled all voters with underlying health conditions could vote absentee. The Court said that the Chancellor Denise Owens’ previous ruling was too broad. The court will not allow motions for a rehearing, and its decision is final.
Mississippi has no form of early voting or no-excuse absentee voting. In Mississippi, voters must list a legal excuse to vote absentee. One of the excuses voters can list to vote by absentee is a temporary or permanent physical disability. A team of legal organizations attempted to argue that the definition of temporary disability should extend to anyone with underlying health conditions. The high court disagreed.
“Having a preexisting condition that puts a voter at a higher risk does not automatically create a temporary disability for absentee-voting purposes,” Justice Dawn Beam wrote in the court’s majority opinion.
The court’s ruling, however, does not bar voters that have a “physical disability” from voting absentee, as is already allowed by state law. The opinion did not give a specific definition of a physical disability, but instructed local election officials to “act in good faith” to ensure that only qualified people can vote by absentee.
This past legislative session, the Mississippi Legislature amended the state’s absentee voting laws to allow those under a “physician-imposed” quarantine for COVID-19 and those caring for someone under a physician-imposed quarantine for COVID-19 to claim the disability exemption. However, the state lawmakers never offered a statutory definition of a physician-imposed quarantine.
The Mississippi Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union for Mississippi attempted to argue that the definition of physician-imposed quarantine includes federal and state health recommendations for people with underlying health conditions to stay away from crowds as much as possible.
The state Supreme Court rejected this idea and said that an imposed quarantine does not encompass both mandatory and nonmandatory directives from federal and state health officials.
“Had the Legislature intended to allow a voter to vote absentee based on a physician’s recommendation, it would have provided so accordingly with plain language,” the opinion reads. “The Legislature did not do so. Instead, it promulgated a straightforward term that bestows certainty with regard to its intent behind the language added.”
The court denied requests to allow people who simply want to avoid polling precincts out of fear of contracting the virus.
In a joint statement from the MCJ and the ACLU, the two organizations said they were pleased with the court recognizing that some voters have conditions that qualify as physical disabilities, but are disappointed that voters without such conditions are “being forced to ignore public health guidance and required to vote in person.”
“We hope the Legislature will go back into session and take action to protect vulnerable people during this public health crisis,” the statement read. “Even if the legislators are concerned about mail-in voting, they could expand in-person absentee voting or allow early in-person voting during the pandemic and provide for counties to hold Saturday outdoor sessions during October so people can vote in an outdoor setting where COVID-19 is not so easily transferred.”
Other legal organizations have filed similar lawsuits in federal court, which argue that Mississippi’s absentee voting laws, such as requiring people to have absentee ballot forms notarized, put people at an elevated risk during the pandemic.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.