Though she is temporarily working in Maryland, Amber Thomas, 32, is registered to vote in her native Mississippi. Earlier this year, she was denied her right to vote in that state’s primary election through no fault of her own. In order to make sure her vote is counted in Mississippi for the general election, she’s driving 14 hours to Jackson to cast her ballot.
The majority of states have succeeded in adjusting election infrastructures and accommodating new voting formats due to the public health crisis: 35 states are allowing early voting, and 45 have broadened mail-in voting to include all voters who request a ballot, even if they are technically able to vote in person. Only one state is not permitting either option. That’s Mississippi, where nearly all voters will have to vote in person on Election Day.
You almost have to be a gladiator to cast your vote in Mississippi.”
The Magnolia State does allow some exceptions: as is customary, people temporarily living out of state or traveling can vote by mail. So can people older than 65, and people who have physical disability that restricts their ability to vote in person. This year, the state is including the coronavirus in that that category, but only if voters are be “under a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19…or caring for a dependent who is under a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19,” according to the rule issued by the Secretary of State’s office. (No doctor’s note is required, but perjury carries a criminal penalty.) Those individuals can also drop off their absentee ballots early in person—at their county courthouse (there is one in each county)—but for these at-risk groups, that still means going out in public and and possibly being to the virus.
“Of course, that leaves a lot of people out who would like to not go in person on Election Day because of COVID,” says Caren Short, senior staff attorney for voting rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center. That organization filed a lawsuit, along with the NAACP and the League of Women Voters, who’d heard safety complaints and concerns from voters. The lawsuit sought to overturn the “challenge burdensome requirements,” including the state’s rule that all mailed ballots must be notarized. Mississippi is one of seven states that has retained that precondition this year, even as three other states that previously had it—Minnesota, North Carolina, and Rhode Island—have relaxed it in response to the pandemic. Going out to a notary is yet another risk of infection for the most vulnerable.
A small victory that emerged from the lawsuit was the Secretary of State permitting curbside voting, though it said it would only be allowed for voters who are currently experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or have been exposed to the virus to vote from their cars on Election Day, though the Secretary’s website notes this method of voting will take longer (a similar measure was was struck down in neighboring Alabama). Still, communication about how to vote curbside hasn’t been clear; the Secretary of State’s office hasn’t yet issued specific instructions, so Short is encouraging voters to call their own county’s circuit clerk to find out.
The office of Secretary of State Michael Watson did not reply to Fast Company‘s requests for clarification on the reason for a lack of accommodations. Short says the state usually justifies the barriers as steps to protect election integrity. “The justification is always about voter fraud, and that always falls flat,” Short says, adding that voter fraud is virtually nonexistent. The hurdles leave concerned voters with little choice. “If they have to stay home to protect themselves—we hope that that’s not going to happen,” she says, “—but if they need to, they will.”
For Corey Wiggins, executive director of the Mississippi NAACP, which was a partner on the lawsuit, all these measures, including a deliberate lack of communication, point to intentional voter suppression. And, it serves to specifically exclude the Black community from voting. “Mississippi has a long history of being right at the center of voting rights and access to the ballot,” he says, adding: “Voter suppression tactics here in Mississippi have been racially driven and racially motivated.” As almost 38% of the state’s population is Black, that also shapes the political makeup, by “disenfranchising…voters who may be more supportive of progressive politics than conservative politics.”
Mississippi has a long history of being right at the center of voting rights and access to the ballot.”
Mississippi was one of the first states to establish these disenfranchising techniques after Black people were granted the right to vote following the Civil War, first through violence and intimidation, and then through Jim Crow-era laws, like requiring poll taxes and literacy tests as prerequisites to vote. Following the end of Reconstruction, the proportion of registered Black voters in Mississippi shrank from 90% to 6%. Paramilitary organizations, including “Rifle Clubs” and “Red Shirts,” unofficially attached to the Democratic Party, paraded the polls, incited riots at Republican rallies, and committed whippings and murders—all of which went unchecked by the federal government, for fear of political toll. The tactics are referred to as the “Mississippi Plan,” and became the template for the wider Jim Crow laws that were adopted by the other Southern states. Today, Mississippi and nearby states, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas, make up four of the five states that are not allowing no-excuse mail-in voting in 2020 (though the other three southern states do allow early voting).
Ahead of the Mississippi primary, Amber Thomas, who qualifies to vote absentee because she is currently working in Maryland, filed her ballot request in plenty of time, but the ballot didn’t arrive in the mail until after Election Day. This time, she’s not taking any risks. She’s driving down to drop off her absentee ballot in person at the Hines County courthouse, with her mother, who’s also eligible because she’s older than 65. For Thomas, the trip is worth the hassle. “The place that I really care about is Mississippi,” she says. “This is my home.”
But she says Black voters in Mississippi routinely experience a series of barriers. Mississippi has a strict voter ID law, but her local DMV, in a Black, working-class area of Jackson, had shuttered. The state also regularly and strategically purges voter rolls, she adds. And notarization, “a weird, extra step,” is hard for many people to obtain unless “somebody’s aunty is a notary.” (Short, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, adds that it’s even unclear where the ballot needs to be stamped.) “It’s just one thing after another,” Thomas says. “You almost have to be a gladiator to cast your vote in Mississippi.”
The pandemic has added yet another element to systemic suppression (as has Hurricane Zeta, which left some absentee voters without power after it made landfall). That means the polls are poised to receive a large influx of voters on Tuesday. Experts and organizations are reiterating that voters should maintain social distance and take the relevant sanitary precautions. (The Secretary of State’s voting guidelines say that voters will not be required to wear masks at polling places.)
Despite the obstacles, absentee turnout has not suffered. As of three weeks before Election Day, 58,796 mail votes had been cast, putting the state on track to break its absentee record. “It’s not like people aren’t voting,” says Timaka Jones, circuit clerk for Humphreys County in central Mississippi. “Voter turnout has been above average.” When asked why the state hasn’t broadened its accommodations, Jones laughs. “It is Mississippi,” she says. “We are often last in everything. It is what it is.”