A ruling allowing people at higher risk for COVID-19 due to pre-existing health conditions to vote absentee has been overturned.
Mississippi Supreme Court judges on Friday reversed the Sept. 2 decision by a Hinds County chancery judge that expanded the accommodations for COVID-19 giving voters with pre-existing medical conditions the OK to vote absentee in the November election. The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mississippi Center for Justice.
“Having a preexisting condition that puts a voter at a higher risk does not automatically create a temporary disability for absentee-voting purposes,” justices wrote.
Mississippi does not allow widespread early voting. Instead, state law says absentee voting is available to anyone 65 or older, or for voters of any age who are permanently disabled or will be out of their home county on Election Day. People who have to work on Election Day when polls are open also are allowed to vote absentee.
Legislators tweaked the law this year with provisions that expire at the end of 2020. Those allow absentee voting by someone with a temporary or permanent disability that may include “a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19” or by a person who is “caring for a dependent that is under a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19.”
People with health conditions including lupus and asthma filled a lawsuit Aug. 11 in Hinds County Chancery Court. Their attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the Mississippi Center for Justice argued that any voter with a preexisting condition should be able to vote absentee because the state health officer, who is a physician, has advised that people with such conditions should avoid large public gatherings.
Secretary of State Michael Watson appealed the order to the state Supreme Court.
Attorneys for Watson wrote in the appeal that the state law’s “narrow absentee excuse does not stretch to voters without an underlying ‘physical disability’ just because they have a fear of contracting COVID-19 at the polls, or the voters are voluntarily following public health guidance.”
Other groups filed a similar lawsuit Aug. 27 in federal court, arguing that Mississippi’s absentee voting restrictions put people at risk during the coronavirus pandemic. They filed additional papers Thursday asking a judge to block two requirements – that a voter have absentee ballot forms notarized and that people have an excuse to vote absentee, such as being out of town on Election Day. Waiving the excuse would open absentee voting to many more people.
In nearby Louisiana, a federal judge recently ruled to allow mail-in voting for people with conditions that the CDC has listed as making people more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Even with the change Alcorn County Circuit Clerk Crystal Starling is anticipating more absentee ballots than ever for the Nov. 3 election. Absentee ballots will become available on Sept. 21.
The ballot is a bit crowded but won’t include any local races. The Presidential election, the proposed new state flag, a medical marijuana initiative and a state senate race will be featured on the ticket.
Absentee voting runs through Oct. 31.