By: Theo Weber
2021 has been a year of rapid, substantial change to state election laws throughout the country. Whether acting to restrict voting rights because of unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, or acting to expand said rights in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, states have been legislating at a feverish clip. The Brennan Center for Justice notes that between January 1, 2021, and July 14, 2021, 18 states have enacted 30 laws restricting voting access, while 25 states have enacted 54 laws that expand it.
However, one state has been notably absent from passing any legislation in 2021. That state is Mississippi.
The lack of change to voting requirements in Mississippi should not come as much of a surprise though; Mississippi already has some of the most restrictive voting requirements in the country. Mississippi was listed as one of the 6 most difficult states to vote early in by the Center for Election Innovation & Research, and a 2018 study published in the Election Law Journal listed Mississippi as the most difficult state to vote in.
A glance into Mississippi’s County Elections Handbook shows how highly restrictive requirements lead to such difficult voting. Photo identification must be present when voting in person. Additionally, access to voting via absentee ballot is incredibly rare, with physically disabled individuals, military members, or people over the age of 65 among some of the very few who would even qualify.
Not even the COVID-19 pandemic caused Mississippi to make any significant shifts in their process or requirements. Mississippi was the only state in the country that had in-person voting as the only available option to all voters, and unless a person was under a doctor-mandated quarantine for COVID-19, they could not obtain an absentee ballot.
The restrictions that have been in place only continue, especially with absentee ballots. Mississippi has no drop boxes for early voters, which means votes are subject to the unreliability of the postal system. Additionally, ballots have to be notarized or else they will not be accepted. It would appear that states like Georgia and Texas, who are either looking to pass or have passed more restrictive voting legislation, are still playing catch-up to Mississippi.
This should not come as a major surprise though. Mississippi has had, perhaps, the most damning history of voting restrictions in the country. Mississippi was eager in the 1890s in a post-Reconstruction era to enact literacy tests and poll taxes, specifically aimed at disenfranchising black voters who had joined the voting rolls in earlier years. In fact, Mississippi’s laws were so successful that they became a model for other southern states known as the “Mississippi Plan” which many states adopted in the Jim Crow era.
In a state where voting requirements have been incredibly restrictive in recent years, it seems unlikely that anything will change. Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson’s primary voting concerns appear to be related to potential election fraud, and he clearly believes the state’s laws are helping to prevent such a thing from happening. Additionally, Governor Tate Reeves has proclaimed that universal mail voting will never happen in Mississippi, and Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann has stated that he will oppose any effort to remove the notary requirement for absentee ballots.
Mississippi’s ballot initiative program also offers little recourse to individuals looking to expand voting access. A minimum of 106,190 signatures must be gathered within a year, a difficult prospect for a state with only one city over 100,000 people and a population density of just 63.2 people per square mile.
It also appears that Mississippi is going to fight to remain in the position it’s currently in. Proposals at the federal level, such as the For the People Act or the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would make changes to voter registration and election access that fly in the face of current Mississippi law. It is no surprise then that Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch has already come out stating that she would sue to challenge such federal action. It would appear that Mississippi will do everything to retain its status quo, one that it feels no need to update post-2020 and post-COVID 19, and one that other states are trying to catch-up to.