Mississippians are scheduled to go to the polls to vote Nov. 3 on a variety of offices and issues, but it likely won’t be business as usual thanks to the coronavirus.
COVID-19 will affect November’s voting processes
State officials are expecting more people to seek absentee ballots rather than risk the danger of catching COVID-19 by going to the polls. Some people may simply decide not to vote at all.
Even if the spread of the COVID-19 illness has been more contained by then, election officials still likely will have to be concerned about social distancing and sanitizing equipment for voters.
Another potential challenge is that long-time election holders, many of whom are elderly or retired, may be reluctant to sit in one spot and be exposed to people for more than 12 hours straight.
Conversely, having a presidential election, the state flag issue and the possible legalizaion of medical use of marijuana on the ballot may draw more voting interest than usual.
Union County Circuit Clerk Phyllis Stanford has already been working on the problem, but it is too soon to know exactly what will happen.
Electronic voting machines probably will be used again and they are touch-sensitive. To get around having people touch the machines, Stanford said she has found that giving people cotton swabs like Q-Tips to use to press the screen will work so they don’t have to actually touch the surface. The programming cards that must be inserted would probably need to be wiped between uses, however.
She said social distancing will be practiced, of course, but while election holders can be more spread out, not all polling locations are roomy and people may still tend to bunch up.
The state legislature has taken some steps in light of the pandemic, but to a limited degree and less than some officials desired.
Rules for absentee ballots
For instance, being under a physician-imposed quarantine, or caring for someone under a physician-imposed quarantine, is now a justifiable reason to obtain an absentee ballot.
However, simply having a fear of the coronavirus is not legally sufficient to qualify for an absentee ballot.
Despite scattered interest throughout the state, there is no on-line or so-called “early” voting.
The new law does tightens security for absentee voting and simplifies part of the process.
Now, people using absentee ballots in most cases will have to vote in the presence of a registrar or notarizing official. The elderly and physically disabled may have someone else as a witness, but it cannot be anyone with familial connections to a candidate.
Also now, the absentee ballots will go directly into the ballot box. They will not have to be carried to precincts for further handling by election holders there.
What is planned to protect voters and workers?
Secretary of State Michael Watson said, “Your right to vote should not be among the pandemic’s victims. Here at the Secretary of State’s Office, we do not believe voters should have to choose between casting a ballot and risking their own health. Therefore, we have put together a plan to safeguard the integrity and legitimacy of our elections, while protecting our citizens.”
The plan includes additional poll worker training, which will be provided on line, regarding proper sanitation and social distancing.
Watson said officials want to make sure all poll workers have the necessary personal protective equipment.
The secretary of state’s office will be sending out detailed postcards highlighting changes made due to COVID-19, such as how and where to vote prior to the election.
How are these changes being financed?
Coronavirus relief funds have been designated for hiring additional poll workers, if needed, to help count absentee ballots, help disinfect election areas and help with social distancing and other duties.
The idea of giving election workers hazard pay did not pass, but counties do have the option of giving them $50 as extra pandemic pay.
Watson said money from the CARES Act will go toward buying masks, gloves, plexiglass shields and other equipment for polling places. Hand sanitizer also will be provided.
Watson is anticipating long lines to vote due to the extra procedures. However, Union County has not reported long waits as a serious voting problem in the past.
Mississippi is one of the few remaining states that does not provide widespread mail voting. Some states require an excuse to vote by mail, while others do not. Some have questioned the idea, saying it offers the opportunity for fraud. A Stanford University study found that the United States has virtually no voter fraud and that voting by mail does not favor either party.
Legal reasons to qualify for an absentee ballot:
- Enlisted or commissioned member, male or female, of any component of the United States Armed Forces and a citizen of Mississippi, or spouse or dependent of such member.
- Member of the Merchant Marine or the American Red Cross and a citizen of Mississippi or spouse or dependent of such member.
- Disabled war veteran who is a patient in any hospital and a citizen of Mississippi or spouse or dependent of such veteran.
- Civilian attached to and serving outside of the United States with any branch of the Armed Forces or with the Merchant Marine or American Red Cross, and a citizen of Mississippi or spouse or dependent of such civilian.
- Citizen of Mississippi temporarily residing outside the territorial limits of the United States and the District of Columbia.
- Student, teacher or administrator at a college, university, junior or community college, high, junior high, elementary or grade school, whose studies or employment at such institution necessitates absence from the county of voting residence or spouse or dependent of such student, teacher or administrator who maintains a common domicile outside the county of voting residence with such student, teacher or administrator.
- Will be outside the county on election day.
- Have a temporary or permanent physical disability (requiring a doctor’s statement), which may include, but is not limited to, a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19 during the year 2020. Or caring for a dependent that is under a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19 beginning with the effective date of this act and the same being repealed on December 31, 2020.
- Sixty-five (65) years of age or older.
- The parent, spouse or dependent of a person with a temporary or permanent physical disability who is hospitalized outside his or her county of residence or more than 50 miles away from his or her residence, and who will be with such person on election day.
- A member of the congressional delegation, or spouse or dependent of a member of the congressional delegation.
- Required to be at work on election day during the times which the polls will be open.
Although prosecution is rare, a person can be fined up to $5,000 and sentenced up to five years in the penitentiary for making a false statement in applying for an absentee ballot and for selling a vote and violating the Mississippi Absentee Voter Law.
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