By Catrina Curtis
Mississippi finds itself in an odd position going into this important Election Day amidst the COVID-19 pandemic: it is the only state to have allowed its statewide mask mandate to expire and the only state that is not offering early or mail-in voting for all of its citizens.
The Magnolia State is one of only five states that will not offer no-excuse absentee voting for this November’s election, even as the vast majority of states have expanded their mail-in voting options due to health and safety concerns. However, among the five states not offering no-excuse absentee voting, Mississippi is the only state also not offering early voting. Although the Mississippi Legislature passed an amendment this summer to allow for those quarantining due to COVID-19 or those caring for someone with COVID-19 to vote by mail, the Mississippi Supreme Court recently held that the amendment does not also allow for those with pre-existing conditions at a greater risk of COVID-19 to vote absentee, striking down a lower interpretation of the amendment that was appealed by the Secretary of State.
Since so many Mississippians will therefore likely be voting in person on Election Day, many had hoped the state would require masks at polling places. However, Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson has made it clear that because November 3 is a federal election, the state cannot and will not require masks at the polls. He, and other state officials, while strongly encouraging mask-wearing, have chosen to focus more on the importance of ensuring all Mississippians can have their voice heard in this election. Watson explained, “No voter should be denied the right to vote for not wearing a mask.” The Assistant Secretary of State Kendra James furthered that only Congress, the Mississippi Legislature, or a constitutional amendment could legally require masks at the polls statewide.
However, recently, in Minnesota, a federal judge dismissed a challenge to Minnesota’s “constitutional authority to enact measures to protect the health and safety of its citizens,” upholding the Minnesota governor’s emergency mask mandate at the polls. In fact, at least 33 states are requiring masks at their polling places this November. Some of these states also plan to offer curbside voting for those who come to vote without a mask on.
Mississippi officials, often invoking their personal views on individual liberties and freedoms, have emphasized that they strongly encourage mask-wearing but just do not wish to mandate it. When Governor Tate Reeves allowed the mask mandate to expire in late September, he explained, “I want to be clear, I still believe that masks work. I still plan to wear one. It is the smart and prudent and wise thing to do.”
While state officials will not enforce a mask mandate at the polls, Mississippi is taking measures to protect its citizens’ health at the polls this Election Day. The Secretary of State announced that his office would be delivering over $542,000 of supplies to circuit clerks around the state, including gloves, masks, face shields, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, and one-use pens and styluses. The supplies were purchased with some of the state’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) funds that were specifically designated for the 2020 federal election. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency will also donate almost 9,000 bottles of hand sanitizer for the counties to use on Election Day.
Poll workers, election monitors, and volunteers are required to wear masks on Election Day, according to the state guidelines. Furthermore, as counties are responsible for their own polling places in Mississippi, individual counties may require more safety guidelines and measures, including county-specific mask mandates.