In some circles, Mississippi Republicans continue to push back against efforts to modernize Mississippi’s election and voting laws through changes that include early voting provisions.
Critics say early voters lose the ability to change their minds as circumstances evolve in a campaign, as in a candidate dropping out of the race. Those same critics say early voting doesn’t eliminate absentee voter fraud. Those critics also say early voting makes the concept of poll watchers observing the proceedings difficult if not impossible.
Many of those same supporters spent years arguing that voter identification was excellent public policy despite a significant lack of evidence that it did anything to deter absentee ballot fraud.
I supported voter identification and I likewise support early voting and online voter registration. But let’s examine the reality of early voting laws in the country. Here’s what the National Conference of State Legislatures has to say about early voting:
“More than two-thirds of the states - 37, plus the District of Columbia - offer some sort of early voting. Early voting allows voters to visit an election official’s office or, in some states, other satellite voting locations, and cast a vote in person without offering an excuse for why the voter is unable to vote on Election Day. Some states also allow voters to receive, fill out and cast their absentee ballot in person at the elections office or at a satellite location rather than returning it through the mail. This is often referred to as in-person absentee voting. Satellite voting locations vary by state, and may include other county and state offices (besides the election official’s office), grocery stores, shopping malls, schools, libraries, and other locations.”
In Mississippi, the only “early” votes are absentee ballots that are available beginning 45 days before an election, but only for certain excused reasons including the voters knowing that they’ll be out of their home county on election day or disability or voters past age 65. College students and members of the armed forces can often vote absentee ballots.
Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina have “no excuse” early voting. Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina have “no excuse” absentee ballots. Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi have “excuse” driven absentee ballots, but no other early voting.
Tennessee and Texas have “no excuse” early voting, but require excuses for absentee ballots. In other words, Mississippi is outside the mainstream of the majority of state in terms of early voting. And in a society that worships time, in a sense, there can be no real reason for that fact beyond partisan considerations, fears, or strategies.
While there’s no factual basis to support the beliefs — as I’ve often observed before — Republicans believe that early voting will benefit Democrats as strongly as Democrats long believed that voter ID would benefit Republicans. Early voting is a reality in most of the country and in most of the South.
The fact is that early voting is no panacea for increasing voter turnout just as voter ID was no panacea to eliminating election fraud. The fact is that absentee ballots in Mississippi still present the greatest opportunity for political mischief. Republicans and Democrats alike know this.
With approval from the Mississippi House, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann is close to leading to passage some important bipartisan election reforms. The proposed election law changes are extremely worthwhile and in great measure would bring Mississippi elections into the modern era.
Among the proposed changes are laws that would provide for online voter registration for residents with a valid Mississippi driver’s license or a state-issued identification card. In addition, the study group recommendations provides for “no excuse” early voting to allow registered voters to cast their ballots up to 21 days prior to an election at their respective county courthouses.
The proposal would also move the state’s presidential preference primary from the second Tuesday in March to the first Tuesday or “Super Tuesday” — which would increase the state’s relevance in presidential campaigns.