New Mississippi Lawsuit Challenges Burdensome, Unconstitutional Absentee Ballot Requirements during COVID-19 Pandemic
Voter Encouragement, Not Voter Suppression, is Needed to Secure Free and Fair Elections
JACKSON, Miss. – A lawsuit filed in federal court today against Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson and Attorney General Lynn Fitch challenges the constitutionality of the state’s absentee ballot requirements, including the Excuse Requirement, Notarization Requirement, and Cure Prohibition, as enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the November 2020 general election. The plaintiffs in the case are seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions to the Excuse and Notarization absentee ballot requirements ahead of the November elections, as well as an effective notice and cure process when election judges believe there is an inconsistency with a voter’s signature.
The litigation, Parham v. Watson, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Dechert LLP are representing three individual plaintiffs, including Cynthia Parham, and two organizational plaintiffs – the League of Women Voters of Mississippi and the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP.
“Mississippi has some of the most restrictive burdens on absentee voting in the nation that run afoul of the constitution and have a particularly stark impact on Black voters,” said Jennifer Nwachukwu, counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “As a historic number of people are expected to cast their ballot this fall amid the ongoing pandemic, election officials have failed to take action that will ensure that all voters across Mississippi will have their voice heard. With weeks to go before the November election, we are turning to the court to defend the right to vote for people across Mississippi.”
According to the complaint, the application of Mississippi’s temporary or permanent physical disability excuse burdens the fundamental right to vote. Secretary Watson has refused to clarify if the plain language of the law allows any voter with concerns about contracting COVID-19 at the polls to vote by absentee ballot. Even after the Mississippi State Legislature passed House Bill 1521 earlier this year, which, according to the complaint, explicitly clarified COVID-19-related eligibility to vote by absentee ballot under the temporary or permanent physical disability excuse, Secretary Watson has failed to provide clear guidance to county election officials ahead of the November election. Voters remain unclear if they are allowed by law to cast an absentee ballot during the pandemic. The longstanding Notarization Requirement, which requires voters to obtain notarization or attestation from an authorized official on both the absentee application and ballot, is also in violation of the fundamental right to vote because it requires voters to leave their home at least twice during the pandemic to get their voting materials properly signed. Finally, the Cure Prohibition breaches a voters’ constitutional rights. If an election judge believes there is an inconsistency with a voters’ signature, there is no notice or opportunity to resolve this before the ballot is rejected.
“Mississippi’s highest election officials should ensure that all Mississippi voters are confident and clear about how they can vote safely during this pandemic; instead, they are sowing confusion and refusing to safeguard the right to vote,” said Caren Short, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Without clear guidance from the Secretary of State or a court, Mississippi voters will be forced to choose between their health and casting their vote.”
The restrictions on absentee voting are not consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines regarding safe voting practices, and create unnecessary risks to the safety and health of thousands of Mississippi residents who wish to cast their ballot in the upcoming election. Despite Mississippi now ranking second in the nation per-capita for COVID-19 cases, the state is among only six states in the nation that do not allow legitimate fear of illness from COVID-19 as an excuse to request an absentee ballot.
"This pandemic has disproportionately destroyed the hopes, dreams, and livelihoods of the most vulnerable groups in our country—communities of color, seniors, people with disabilities, and the income-sensitive. We cannot allow them to take another blow in the suppression of their voting rights,” said Dr. Deborah Turner, president of the board of directors of the League of Women Voters of the United States. “States like Mississippi must make the necessary changes to protect their voters and their constitutional right to vote.”
“Mississippi has the largest percentage of Black residents in the country, and Mississippi advocates have led the fight for equality in voting rights,” said Rev. Robert James, President of the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP. “We join this effort to ensure that Mississippi’s election officials do their part to protect every voters’ right to vote without fear for their health or safety.”
“We remain committed to ensuring that all eligible Mississippi voters have the ability to vote safely and to have their votes counted,” commented Dechert LLP partner Neil Steiner.
The full complaint can be viewed here: https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/complaint_-_parham_v._watson.pdf