Chancellor’s ruling to expand voting should have little real effect, officials say

September 3rd, 2020     Government & Politics

A Hinds County chancery court judge issued a ruling Wednesday ostensibly broadening conditions under which a person may use an absentee ballot, but local court officials don’t think it will make any real difference for voters.

A group of individuals and the ACLU filed suit against the secretary of state and some clerks arguing that having an illness or condition that placed one at high risk for catching the corona virus constituted a disability. Having a temporary or permanent disability is already provided for as a reason for absentee voting.

They also argued that the state health officer’s recommendations concerning isolation and staying at home equated to a physician-ordered quarantine, which would qualify everyone in the state for absentee ballots.

The chancellor ruled that some of the plaintiffs who suffered from illnesses such as cancer, lupus and diabetes should qualify for absentee ballots because they face a real threat. But she also ruled against other plaintiffs who had no such conditions themselves and were concerned for the health of others primarily.

The judge did not accept the argument that state health recommendations constitute a quarantine.

In reality, however, local court officials said anyone willing to swear an affidavit about illness has always been able to vote absentee.

Circuit Court Judge Kelly Luther said in conversation that he was not aware of anyone who called a circuit clerk asking for an absentee ballot on account of illness ever being turned down.

Circuit clerks have no legal way of evaluating disability and have always had considerable latitude in allowing absentee voting. They have always leaned more toward granting such voting rather than restricting it, aligning with recent statements by state officials that one’s health should not impinge on the ability to vote.

That doesn’t mean absentee voters have faced less scrutiny in determining that they are indeed qualified electors, however.

The chancellor’s ruling still did not expand absentee voting to anyone who simply has concerns about the virus but is healthy otherwise. They still must vote in person unless they qualify for an absentee ballot for some other reason.

The ruling also appeared to take discretion away from circuit clerks, concerning what constitutes disability, and give it to the individual voter.

The ruling stated:

“It is not up to the Clerk to decide whether any individual’s physical condition or ailments rise to the level of a disability nor is it the Clerk’s responsibility to determine whether a person is at severe risk of illness or death if they were to contract COVID-19. Any such determination shall be made by the elector in good faith.”

Union County Circuit Clerk Phyllis Stanford has been tied up in a court term this week and had not had time to study the ruling since it came out late yesterday but expected further clarification from the state.

The suit was filed in Hinds County because a suit against the state must be filed in the county where the seat of government is.

Absentee ballots will not be available for the Nov. 3 general election for two more weeks, at least, and the clerk’s office will not begin to compile a list of those wanting absentee ballots until shortly before that time.

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