Supreme Court limits coronavirus absentee voting by mail

September 23rd, 2020     Featured Government & Politics

Absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 general election should be here by mid-week.

Union County Circuit Clerk Phyllis Stanford said her office has received more interest in absentee ballots this year than usual.

This is likely due in part to concerns about voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic and interest may be increased more due to the amount of publicity the issue of so-called voting by mail has received in national news.

Several reasons exist to allow a Mississippi resident to use an absentee ballot but most absentee ballots have simply been used ahead of time at the clerk’s office – certainly not mailed out en masse.

You can get a ballot sent out and returned by mail if you are temporarily residing outside the county but the ballot will be sent to the temporary address. Stanford said she has always mailed ballots to college students, for instance.

You can qualify for a mailed ballot if you are 65 or older, or are temporarily or permanently disabled but your ballot will have to be notarized.

And, finally, you may qualify for a mailed ballot if you are a parent, spouse of dependent of someone temporarily or permanently disabled who is hospitalized outside the county of residence or more than 50 miles away, and you will be with the person on election day. Stanford said this is rarely used.

To help protect voting integrity, a person can’t just call up the clerk’s office and say send a ballot.

The voter must request an application, complete it and return it, although the two can be mailed at the same time as long as they are in the required separate envelopes provided. The application and ballot need to be notarized or witnessed and must be received no later than five days after the election, but postmarked no later than the day of the election.

The witness should be a notary public, postal or court clerk but for someone disabled the witness can just be someone 18 or older.

In no case can the circuit clerk hand-deliver absentee ballots. They must be voted in person in the office or sent and returned by mail.

Simply being afraid of catching the virus is not considered a sufficient reason to obtain an absentee ballot.

While the legislature did not approve widespread voting by mail, they did add one more exemption near the end of their session in response to the pandemic. That is that a person who is under physician-mandated quarantine, or providing full-time care for someone under a physician-mandated quarantine, due to COVID-19 can now use an absentee ballot.

The exemption is good only for this election and a possible run-off, being repealed automatically Dec. 31.

Although simply being afraid of exposure to the coronavirus has been ruled as not sufficient for an absentee ballot, being temporarily or permanently disabled does qualify, however.

It is still up to the circuit clerk to determine whether a person is disabled and because the clerks have no good way to determine disability they tend to act more on the side of allowing people to vote.

A group of citizens filed suit hoping to expand the coronavirus exemptions and a Hinds County chancery court found in favor of some of their requests.

However, the secretary of state appealed to the State Supreme Court. In a ruling issued Friday, the high court ruled against the citizens for the most part, with two justices dissenting.

The Supreme Court ruled that having a pre-existing condition that makes you more susceptible to the virus or at higher risk is not sufficient reason for an absentee ballot.

The court also ruled that the state health officer’s recommendation to stay home does not constitute physician-mandated quarantine.

So, for the most part, the rules allowing for absentee voting are pretty much the same as they have always been.

Monday, Oct. 5, is the last day one can register to vote or to change or update voter registration information.

Stanford’s office will be open on some Saturdays for the convenience of voters. The office will be open from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday, Oct. 3, Saturday, Oct. 24 from 8 a.m. to noon for absentee voting and Saturday, Oct. 31, from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. for last-minute absentee voters.

Because people do have legitimate concerns about exposure to the virus in public, Circuit Clerk Stanford said a variety of precautionary measures will be taken to keep voters and poll workers safe. This will include social distancing for voters and poll workers, protective gear and hand sanitizers. She has also found that although voting machines are touch-sensitive, objects such as cotton swabs can be used to register votes without actually touching the devices.

Extra election holders are being hired to help as well.

 

Here are the already-existing 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 am a citizen of Mississippi, or spouse or dependent of such member.
  • Member of the Merchant Marine or the American Red Cross and am a citizen of Mississippi or spouse or dependent of such member.
  • Disabled war veteran who is a patient in any hospital and am 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 am a citizen of Mississippi or spouse or dependent of such civilian.
  • Trained or certified emergency response provider deployed during the absentee voting period, on election day or during any or any state of emergency declared by the President of the United States or governor of any state in the United States.
  • 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 my absence from the county of my voting residence or spouse or dependent of such student, teacher or administrator who maintains a common domicile outside the county of my 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 I 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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