DeSoto County voters broke its record for ballots cast in a presidential election by more than 10,000 this year. The certified results for the 2020 elections report 76,636 ballots cast across the county, breaking the 2016 record of 66,349. The county also set a new record for absentee ballots cast, with 2020’s 14,189 shattering 2016’s previous record of just over 8,000.
The higher turnout is in part because of the increase in voter registration in the county since 2016. Between the two elections, the number of registered voters increased by more than 23%, from 98,739 to 121,674.
Increased turnout alongside the precautions taken to maximize the safety of in-person voting during a pandemic led to lengthy wait times at polling places across the county on Election Day. Hours-long lines wrapped around buildings and parking lots, and many longtime voters said they had never before waited more than a few minutes to cast their ballots.
The election results for DeSoto County were not certified until Monday night, marking the first time that the county has missed the 10-day deadline to do so. Certification continues to be delayed in some Mississippi counties, largely because of an unprecedented number of absentee ballots cast amid the COVID-19 pandemic.Fifteen Mississippi counties missed the Nov. 13 deadline to certify their election results, and 12 counties had still not certified as of Monday morning.
Three of the counties that missed the deadline are late because of COVID-19 outbreaks among election officials or in offices where votes were being tabulated, according to a spokesperson in Secretary of State Michael Watson’s office. One election commissioner has tested positive, a circuit clerk has tested positive and another circuit clerk’s office was exposed late last week during the certification process.
A spokesperson for Watson’s office attributed the certification delays to recent changes in how absentee ballots are counted and processed. Last month, Watson implemented a rule change in how absentee ballots are processed. If there is an issue with verifying the signature on an absentee ballot, the voter must be notified of the issue by election officials and given 10 days to correct it with an “absentee cure form.”
Watson adopted the rule change after the dismissal of a federal lawsuit that sought to expand early voting in Mississippi during the coronavirus pandemic. Mississippi was the only state that did not provide an alternative to in-person voting for every citizen this year.
Still, Mississippi had already broken absentee voting records before Election Day. As of Nov. 2, more than 231,000 Mississippians had voted absentee, more than double of the just over 101,000 absentee ballots counted in 2016.
Danny Klein, chairman of the DeSoto County Election Commission, told Watson’s office that they were doing the best they could do with respect to the new rules, along with the regular duties of the election commission and resolution board. Despite the delays, Klein considered this election as a success for DeSoto County.
“For it being a historical election, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, I think our county did outstanding,” Klein said in an earlier interview with The DeSoto Times-Tribune.
While there were no major voting issues in DeSoto County on Election Day, Klein said the never-before-seen lines “should be an eye opener” to other large counties and showcased the need for early voting in the state.
“When we have a presidential election, the large counties in the state of Mississippi need to have some kind of early voting… so when 2024 rolls around, they won't have those large lines. Anyway, that's just this one man's opinion,” said Klein, who is retiring this year after 17 years as an election commissioner.
Since Election Day, Gov. Tate Reeves has vowed to never allow universal mail-in voting or no-excuse early voting in Mississippi while he occupies the Governor’s Mansion.
The five-day window after Election Day for mail-in absentee ballots to be received by election offices, coupled with the 10-day window for unverified ballots to be corrected, means it was impossible for some counties to certify by the deadline. Watson’s office has been in contact with the election commissions for all counties that have experienced delays and have directed them to certify as fast as possible.
Several counties that have certified their election results have experienced other issues and delays in reporting them. Several counties have certified in the Statewide Election Management System (SEMS) but have not submitted signed recapitulation reports. Additionally, one county is receiving help from the Secretary of State's office to correct information that was entered incorrectly into the SEMS.