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Parham v. Watson

The Southern Poverty Law Center and its allies challenged the constitutionality of Mississippi’s burdensome absentee ballot requirements to ensure all voters have the opportunity to cast a ballot during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the November 2020 general election.

The federal lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District for the Southern District of Mississippi with

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Dechert LLP as co-counsel. It describes how the state’s law requiring an excuse to qualify for an absentee ballot burdens the fundamental right to vote. Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson has refused to clarify that 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 Legislature passed House Bill 1521 earlier in 2020, which, according to the complaint, explicitly clarified COVID-19-related eligibility to vote by absentee ballot under the excuse, 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.

In addition, the longstanding requirement that requires voters to obtain notarization or attestation from an authorized official on both the absentee application and ballot also places unconstitutional burdens on the fundamental right to vote during the pandemic. It requires voters to leave their home at least twice during to get their voting materials properly signed.

The lawsuit seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions to the excuse and notarization requirements ahead of the November elections,

The state’s failure to provide an opportunity for voters to fix problems raised under the state’s error-prone signature-matching law also violates a voter’s 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. The lawsuit seeks an effective notice and cure process that satisfies constitutional due process principles.

What’s more, the restrictions on absentee voting are not consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 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 ranking second in the nation per-capita for COVID-19 cases at the time the lawsuit was filed, the state was among only six states in the nation that did not allow legitimate fear of illness from COVID-19 as an excuse to request an absentee ballot.