Mississippians can most likely go to bed on Nov. 3 – albeit late that night – knowing the state’s election results.
As pundits across the nation warn that the high number of people voting by mail might make it difficult to determine the winner of the presidential election and other races on election night, several of Mississippi’s election officials are optimistic that will not be the case for this state’s elections.
Mississippians will vote Tuesday in multiple elections, including the presidential, a U.S. Senate seat, three U.S. House seats and a couple of state Supreme Court posts. The statewide ballot also will include questions on legalizing medical marijuana, adopting a new state flag and eliminating a Jim Crow-era provision in the Constitution that could prevent a statewide candidate from being seating even after winning a majority of the vote.
Unless elections are “super, super, super close,” the results in those contests should be known the night of Nov. 3, said state Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, who previously worked in the secretary of state’s office.
“It all depends” on whether there are close elections in Mississippi, said Hinds County Circuit Clerk Zack Wallace when asked about when election results might be known.
“Do I foresee knowing the outcome of the election on the night of Nov. 3? I would say right now yes,” said Forrest County Circuit Clerk Gwen Wilks. “But it just depends on several things.”
A change in law made by the Mississippi Legislature this past summer could slow results from being known in any election with a razor-thin margin. Under the old law, mail-in ballots had to arrive in the circuit clerk’s office the Monday before the election. The change in law allows the ballots to be postmarked by Election Day, and the ballots have to arrive in the circuit clerk’s office within five days of Election Day. In other words, election results could be trickling in for a longer time period.
Still, “that should not be that many ballots,” Circuit Clerk Michael Kelley of Prentiss County said.
“I am hopeful we will have the results a little quicker this year,” Kelley added.
The reason Kelley is optimistic that results can be counted faster is that the law also has been changed this year to allow election officials to begin opening the absentee envelopes and preparing them at the circuit clerks’ offices to be counted once polls are closed on Nov. 3. In the past, absentee ballots had to be transported in their envelopes to the home precinct of the person casting the early ballot, where the ballot would be opened and counted once the polls closed. Opening the ballots early and tabulating them at the circuit clerks’ offices will speed up the process, Kelley said.
On the other hand, an issue that could slow down obtaining results in a close election is that Secretary of State Michael Watson has enacted a new rule as part of a federal lawsuit settlement that requires election officials notify people whose absentee ballots are rejected based on issues with their signature. That process would give voters additional time to correct those problems.
Watson said he does not believe that change will have much of an impact on when the results are known.
“I do think we will have a general idea (of results) on election night,” Watson predicted.
What could be slow on Election Day is not counting the votes but the actual process of voting. An anticipated large turnout, combined with safety precautions initiated by COVID-19, could make for long lines at precincts. The process could be slowed by such factors as social distancing and efforts to ensure voting machines and other items at the polling places are constantly disinfected. Mississippi is the only state not to allow all voters to vote early to avoid crowded precincts during the pandemic.
Despite a restrictive early voting process, election officials say there has been a “significant” surge in absentee voting this year. As of mid-week, the office of Secretary of State reported more than 190,000 absentee ballots requested and 164,101 already returned by voters. This compares with 110,812 requested during the entire early voting period in 2016. The large absentee participation could portend a record turnout for this year’s elections, despite the COVID-19 environment and the hurricane that slammed south Mississippi last week.
Mississippi’s previous record turnout occurred in 2012, when 1,285,584 people voted in the contest where Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama. In that election, Obama received the most votes ever for a Democrat – 562,949 – and the highest percent of the vote – 43.8 percent – since Democrat Jimmy Carter won the state in 1976 with 49.6 percent. Carter was the last Democratic presidential nominee to win Mississippi.
Those are numbers to sleep on as Tuesday’s election rapidly approaches. And people who can’t stay up late Tuesday will likely learn results of Mississippi’s elections the next morning.
This analysis was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.