JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi lawmakers this year rejected a proposal to stop making liars of their fellow citizens, at least when it comes to early voting.
Current state law allows any registered voter who is disabled or at least 65 years old to cast an absentee ballot before election day. Anyone else needs an excuse, such as being out of town on election day, to vote early by absentee.
A bipartisan study group led by Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann met in 2015 and recommended several election law revisions for legislators to consider this year. The group unanimously backed the concept of allowing voters to cast ballots in circuit clerks’ offices starting 21 days before any election, without having to give a reason.
During a news conference at the beginning of the legislative session in January, Hosemann said about 9,000 people cast absentee ballots in Mississippi statewide elections. He said about one-third request mail-in ballots, while two-thirds go to a circuit clerk’s office to vote absentee. Almost half of the people going to clerks’ offices say they’re planning to be out of the county on election day.
“Well, we know they’re not going to be out of the county, not all of them,” Hosemann said. “So, what we were doing is asking our voters, our electorate, to lie when they came to cast their ballot.”
House Bill 796 would have allowed no-excuses early voting at circuit clerks’ offices starting 14 days before each election. The bill passed the House on a bipartisan vote of 117-2, but it died in the Senate Elections Committee.
Republican Sally Doty of Brookhaven, who’s in her first year as chairwoman of the Senate committee, said the bill faltered because circuit clerks asked how early voting would affect their office operations. Circuit clerks are fee-paid, and it was unclear whether they would need to hire extra workers before elections, and where the money would come from if they did.
Doty said some lawmakers also raised concerns about whether early voting could lead to fraud.
“I know that early voting has been successful in some states,” Doty told The Associated Press on Friday. “To be quite honest, we had so many election reform issues on the table this year that we just wanted to be cautious.”
Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, promotes the idea of early voting in “Crisis Point,” a book he co-wrote with former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who led the Senate Democrats at the same time Lott led the Republicans.
Lott recalled that his own father sometimes skipped voting after coming home exhausted from long shifts as a pipefitter at Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula.
“We need to make it easier to vote,” Lott said last month Jackson, promoting the book he wrote with Daschle. “We think we should have more early voting. We think we should vote on Saturday. Why in the world do we vote on Tuesday? … It’s because it’s when people used to go to town to go to market.”
Mississippi is one of 13 states without no-excuses early voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow any qualified voter to cast a ballot before election day, without having to justify why they’re voting early.
Doty said early voting could be debated at some point. It’s not unusual for issues to be discussed several years before either becoming law or fading away.
“As we all know,” Doty said, “change doesn’t come quickly to Mississippi.”
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .
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