TUPELO • Several organizations have filed a lawsuit against the Mississippi secretary of state and two county circuit clerks over the state’s absentee ballot laws and are asking the courts to declare that registered voters in Mississippi with underlying health conditions will be eligible to cast an absentee ballot in the upcoming November election.
The Mississippi Center for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mississippi branch of the ACLU filed the suit in Hinds County Chancery Court on Tuesday.
“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,” said Vangela M. Wade, the president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice. “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.”
Mississippi elections in November will feature presidential and congressional races as well as several ballot referendums, including the selection of a new state flag design.
Presidential elections traditionally draw increased turnout, which leads to more people waiting in line to cast a vote. Critics of current voting provisions say the increased turnout in the election could put voters at risk for contracting the novel coronavirus.
Theresa Lee, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s voting rights project, said in a statement that Mississippians should not have to risk exposure to the virus in order to vote.
“The court can ensure that voters do not have to choose between their health and their vote,” Lee said.
Under current state law, Mississippians must list a legal excuse for voting absentee. Mississippi has no early voting system or no-excuse absentee voting. One of the excuses that voters can list for voting absentee is if they have a “temporary or permanent physical disability.” The suit is asking the courts to rule that the definition of temporary or permanent physical disability would apply to voters with underlying health conditions, which would put them at an elevated risk for contracting the virus.
The defendants in the suit are Mississippi voters who say that they are cautious of going to the polls in-person to vote on election day, but believe none of the current excuses would legally give them a reason to vote absentee.
The Mississippi Legislature recently passed House Bill 1521, which allows registered voters in the 2020 election to cast an absentee ballot if they are under a physician-imposed quarantine or if they are a dependent of someone that has contracted the virus. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed the bill into law on July 8.
The new law does not provide a definition of what physician-imposed quarantine means or what constitutes as a dependent. The suit is asking the courts to give a definition for the two terms and rule that people who are afraid of contracting the virus should be allowed to vote absentee.
“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,” said Rob McDuff, the director of the George Riley Impact Litigation Initiative for the MCJ.
The secretary of state’s office through a spokesperson declined to comment on the suit saying that the agency does not comment on pending litigation. However, Watson previously said in a statement to the Journal that he pushed the Legislature to include language in the bill to allow his office to issue an order that allows all voters to cast an absentee ballot in person when the state is operating under a state of emergency.
Although Watson did not call this possible measure “early voting,” it would have created a type of “early voting” in Mississippi, but only if the state was operating under a state of emergency.
The suit was filed on Tuesday, and only tells the perspective of the plaintiffs. As of Tuesday night, the defendants named in the suit have not responded to the initial complaint.