JACKSON, Miss. – Today in Mississippi, plaintiffs and civil rights groups that challenged Mississippi’s burdensome absentee ballot requirements celebrated new protections put in place for absentee voters as the state conducts an historic election during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plaintiffs in the Parham v. Watson litigation, which has been voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiffs, highlight a new ‘notice and cure process’ for signature match issues on absentee ballots that was implemented by the Secretary of State in response to the litigation. Additionally, voters who may have been exposed to COVID-19 are now eligible to vote curbside so that polling locations remain safe.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and Dechert LLP filed Parham v. Watson on August 27 this year. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of individual Mississippians, the League of Women Voters Mississippi and the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP.
While challenging onerous and unnecessary excuse and notarizations requirements for absentee ballots that remain in effect, the litigation also challenged the ‘cure prohibition’ in Mississippi. Put simply, the state previously did not notify voters if there was a signature match issue, and their otherwise completed and valid absentee ballot was rejected without any opportunity to fix it.
Pushed by the groups’ litigation, Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson issued a new rule on October 7 that creates a new process for election officials to notify voters when there is a signature match issue on their absentee ballot and provide voters an opportunity to fix, or ‘cure,’ it. Specifically, if a signature on a ballot is rejected, the registrar will offer the voter an “Absentee Cure Form” by mail, email, or facsimile within one business day. The voter has ten calendar days after the election to correct the issue and have their ballot counted.
For the record-breaking number of absentee voters in Mississippi who have already chosen to vote absentee by mail this year – many of them new to the voting method - this new cure process will be critical in ensuring every valid ballot counts. The groups expect the new cure process to be in place even after the pandemic is over.
“We are thrilled that our litigation led to a process that is fairer to absentee voters in Mississippi, and we are working with our local partners to help voters vote as safely as possible in whatever manner they select from now until election day – whether that’s absentee by mail, absentee in person, curbside, or in person on Election Day,” said Caren Short, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “To ensure Mississippians who vote absentee by mail have their ballots count, we are encouraging them to include on their ballot their best phone number and email address if they have one so that election officials can reach out if a signature issue arises. It is critical that every Mississippi voter can cast their ballot safely and have their vote counted.”
Secretary Watson also instituted a rule that voters experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or who have been recently exposed to someone with the virus can vote curbside at their precinct on Election Day November 3. Voters wanting more information about curbside voting should contact their county election officials.
“We are pleased that Mississippi has adopted procedures that will protect voters from having their ballots arbitrarily rejected,” said Jennifer Nwachukwu, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Just because a record number of voters in Mississippi will vote-by-mail this year does not mean there needs to be a record number of disenfranchised voters. This is a key victory in protecting the integrity of our election and ensuring the voice of the people is heard.”
“Today’s decision is a huge step forward for voting rights in Mississippi at a critical time, as many voters are practicing social distancing due to the threat of COVID-19,” said Christy Wheeler, co-president of the League of Women Voters of the United States. “The ability for voters to execute their ballot curbside will alleviate some of the long lines that voters encounter at the polling locations and will help poll workers conduct this election more safely. Our litigation provided much need encouragement to our state election officials, and that accountability and partnership with voters is important to our democracy.”
“The Mississippi NAACP remains to committed to the fight for access to the ballot and allowing curbside voting during the pandemic is a step closer toward that direction,” said Dr. Corey Wiggins, Executive Director of the Mississippi NAACP. “It is essential that democracy is available to all Mississippians by being able to participate in elections while protecting the public’s health. More importantly, we will continue to work with our partners to fight against voter suppression tactics aimed at limiting voter participation.”
For more information, Mississippi voters can call an Election Protection hotline run by One Voice at 888-601-8683.