On November 3rd, more than 1.2 million Mississippians will cast their votes for the presidency, Congress, and a handful of down-ballot offices. At best, we will be in recovery from the worst public health and economic crisis in our lifetimes. At worst, we will still be in lockdown after premature attempts to loosen social distancing protocols unleashed second or third waves of the coronavirus.
We run the risk of turning our polling places into petri dishes that jeopardize the health of voters and poll workers — not to mention anyone entering the facilities when they revert to their normal function as schools, churches, and community centers. Our goal must be to achieve the highest possible participation rate at the widest possible social distance.
The safest solution is to send ballots to the addresses of all registered voters, which they can return by mail or at certified drop-off locations. Five states already conduct their elections entirely by mail, and most states have already taken action to increase mail-in balloting because of the pandemic. The CDC has encouraged election authorities to expand the use of mail-in ballots, and Congress appropriated $400 million in the CARES Act for states to prepare to vote by mail. Future relief legislation will likely include more funding.
Mississippi has some of the nation’s tightest restrictions on absentee voting, and our state is one of only eight that have not taken action to increase access to mail-in voting in response to the pandemic.
To receive an absentee ballot by mail, voters must submit a notarized application to their local circuit clerk citing an approved reason (e.g. disability, age 65+, traveling outside the county on Election Day). A voter must then get their ballot notarized before mailing it back. It has to be received by close of business on the Monday prior to the election. Voters with one of the valid excuses can vote absentee at their circuit clerk’s office, but Mississippi is one of only 16 states that does not allow universal early voting. Mississippi is also one of only 11 states that does not allow for online voter registration.
If an all-mail election is not feasible, Mississippi should at least allow all voters request an absentee ballot and return it by mail without notarization. Early voting locations should be opened for all voters in order to reduce lines and crowding on Election Day. And all first-time voters should be able to register online instead of going to the county courthouse.
These reforms had been considered, and rejected, prior to the pandemic. Online registration and no-excuse early voting were part of a raft of election reforms recommended by a commission created under then-Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, but they went nowhere in the Legislature. Opponents typically cited some combination of expense, logistical challenges, and fraud. The same arguments are being advanced now.
The cost and difficulty of implementing vote-by-mail are legitimate concerns, but they can be surmounted if the will exists. The initial costs of creating a system to print, stuff, mail, receive, count, and certify ballots can be steep. Still, it’s better to do it now, while federal funding is available. Once mail-in voting is fully implemented, it is less expensive than staffing and operating in-person polling places.
Mississippi’s elections are run on the county level by circuit clerks and election commissioners. Election planning can be cumbersome under the best of circumstances, but Mississippi does not have to build a new system in a vacuum. The federal Election Assistance Commission has put out detailed COVID-19 resources for state and local election officials, including a step-by-step timeline for expanding mail-in voting by November. There is still enough time if they start the process now.
Ultimately, the specter of fraud is the most pernicious source of resistance, because it is based on suspicion rather than evidence. Mail-in ballots have several security procedures built in: they require identifying information (driver’s license number or last four digits of SSN) and signatures that can be matched against the voter registration files. They contain barcodes so voters do not submit multiple ballots. Post-election audits look for abnormalities, and stiff criminal penalties await anyone who is found guilty of tampering. These measures have contributed to negligible rates of fraud in states with all-mail elections: since Oregon began mail-in voting in 2000, there have only been 12 cases of proven fraud out of more than 100 million votes cast.
Mississippi has the opportunity to modernize our election system, strengthen our democracy, and keep people safe at the same time. But if we aren’t willing to do the first two, we won’t be able to do the third.
Research contributed by Jeran Herbert
[Photo by Pope Moysuh on Unsplash]