Mississippi Organizers Navigate Difficult Voting Rights Terrain in Run Up to November

A ban on assisting people with absentee ballots was halted by a federal court for now, but voting rights organizers still operate under restrictive policies that depress voter turnout.

Ingrid Cruz   |    September 14, 2023

Members of the Mississippi chapter of League of Women Voters register voters in 2012. (Flickr/NatalieMaynor)

Stringent voter ID laws, limited early and absentee voting, and some of the harshest felony disenfranchisement policy in the nation all add up to make Mississippi one of the most difficult places in the U.S. to cast a vote. The mountain of obstacles make ballot access difficult for some, and downright impossible for others. According to one 2022 study ranking all U.S. states according to the relative ease of voting in each place, Mississippi ranked second to only New Hampshire in having the highest cost, in terms of time and effort, to vote. 

But even with all these hurdles, a cadre of advocates, nonprofits, churches, and community-minded elected officials have shown up year after year for decades, working hard to protect the right to participate in democracy—especially for Black and other minority voters, who are often the most affected by voting restrictions. 

“We have organizations across the state that are part of the Civic Engagement Roundtable that’s organized by One Voice,” said Representative Zakiya Summers, a Democrat in the state house, referencing a Jackson nonprofit focused on policy advocacy. “These organizations are on conference calls every month. They have created voting rights guides and information that partner organizations can distribute in their community to get people educated and engaged.”

In the lead-up to this year’s primary elections in August, these advocates were gearing up to contend with the latest obstacle that Mississippi’s Republican-controlled legislature had thrown their way: Senate Bill 2358. The bill, which passed in the spring and went into effect on July 1, prohibits anyone from assisting another voter in handling and returning a mail-in ballot unless they are an immediate family or household member, a caregiver, or authorized election worker or mail carrier. Anyone caught violating the law could face up to a year in county jail and a fine of up to $3000.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves praised the bill when he signed it into law, saying that it would protect against “ballot harvesting,” or the practice of collecting ballots en masse, a fear that is central to the unfounded conspiracies about voter fraud that conservatives around the country latched onto since the 2020 election.

Despite a lack of evidence of widespread ballot harvesting or other fraud in Mississippi elections, the bill has threatened to limit the number of volunteers and advocates involved in get-out-the-vote efforts from sending or retrieving ballots on behalf of voters they don’t live with. More importantly, it could impede ballot access for people who count on this kind of assistance. 

“It just seemed like another barrier that would prevent people with disabilities from being able to vote autonomously,” says Jane Walton, the communications officer for Disability Rights Mississippi, which includes voting access among their advocacy work. “The bill in question dealt with whether or not someone can have a person assist them. Really, it’s an issue of whether a person with a disability has the autonomy to choose to vote in a way that is most accessible to them.”

Soon after it was passed, groups including Disability Rights Mississippi and Mississippi’s League of Women Voters sued the state in federal court to block the law, stating it “impermissibly restricts voters with disabilities from having a person of their choice assist them in submitting their completed mail-in absentee ballots.” On July 26, a federal judge sided with them and temporarily blocked the law, saying it disenfranchised voters with disabilities and violated the Voting Rights Act.

The decision blocked enactment of SB 2358 just in time for the Aug. 8 primary, and will also prevent it from taking effect ahead of the general election in November, when Mississippians will vote on nearly every major office, including governor and lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and representatives in both legislative chambers. Polling indicates that Republican incumbents who supported the bill—including the embattled Reeves, and Attorney General Lynn Fitch—are favored to win in this deep red state.

But no matter who people cast their vote for, advocates are more concerned about some residents being able to cast a vote at all. The suspension of SB 2358 offers some temporary relief, but these advocates fear that the threat of similar legislation still looms.

“For the past two years, we’ve been monitoring legislation that [has]pretty much been pushed by the Secretary of State every year to deal with ballot harvesting, Jarvis Dortch, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Mississippi, told Bolts. ”That makes it harder to return a ballot by absentee, especially individuals with disabilities.”

Before the passage of this bill, advocates already had their hands full navigating existing restrictions that make it harder for citizens to vote, and for Black candidates to win

The state requires eligible voters to register 30 days before elections, one of the earliest deadlines in the country. This means that often, advocates must find eligible voters early, and educate them on the importance of registering long before there’s any major discussion of elections in the media, because there’s no early voting or same-day registration options as a backup. And advocates must repeat this process every year thanks to Mississippi’s odd-year elections. 

But in order to even register, eligible voters must comply with a stringent voter ID law, passed in 2011 by way of a ballot initiative that established a strict list of acceptable forms of ID, including a birth certificate, firearms permit, driver’s license, college ID card, US passport, tribal ID, or Voter ID card

“Voter ID targeted vulnerable populations who may not have access to ID or may not have access to a birth certificate so they can get an ID. The law was written so strongly that the state was willing to provide a free Voter ID,” says Summers.

Voting absentee by mail is also an involved process in Mississippi. As opposed to the majority of states, which offer no-excuse absentee voting, mail ballots are only available to populations with qualifying characteristics, including those living out-of-state, students, people with disabilities, people over 65, and certain others. Absentee ballots must be postmarked by election day to be counted. 

“We make it harder than anyone else to get folks registered and make it hard for people to vote absentee,” said Dortch. We don’t provide early voting. Now, instead of making it easier for folks to vote, we’re trying to get people off the voting rolls… and make it harder for people to actually vote absentee. When we have one of the hardest processes to vote absentee in the country. It doesn’t make sense.” 

Mississippi has also had a longtime a lifelong ban on voting for people convicted of certain types of felonies, a policy which has disenfranchised nearly 130,000 Black voters, or 16 percent of the state’s adult Black population. It’s one of only three states, alongside Tennessee and Virginia, where anyone stripped of voting rights loses it for their whole life. They can only regain it if they receive an exceedingly rare pardon from the legislature or the governor.

A federal appeals court this summer struck down that system as unconstitutional, calling it a “cruel and unusual punishment,” and denouncing Mississippi as “an outlier among its sister states, bucking a clear and consistent trend in our Nation against permanent disenfranchisement.” The state appealed the decision in late August, and the rights of hundreds of thousands of Mississippians are still hanging in the balance.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given all these restrictions, Mississippi has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. In the 2022 midterms, Mississippi ranked eighth from last, with roughly 46 percent of voters showing up. And turnout for non-white voters was even lower.

Democrats and progressives have historically championed an increase in access to voting options in the state, and have in turn looked to Black and other disenfranchised voters for support in elections. This upcoming race is no exception. Democrat gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley, for example, is betting on bases of support in majority-Black enclaves around the capital city of Jackson, as well as pockets of white and immigrant progressive and moderate voters scattered around the Mississippi Delta in his long-shot bid to oust Tate Reeves.

Ty Pinkins, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state, is a recent addition after previous candidate Shuwaski Young dropped out of the race for health reasons. While Pinkins has limited time to build name recognition before the contest, he’s hoping that a campaign message of easing the state’s restrictive voting laws will connect with voters.

“Making sure people can register to vote online makes sense, making sure that we have a way for people to do early voting—that makes sense, and not restricting access to the ballot for people with disabilities,” Pinkins told Mississippi Today

SB 2358 remains on hold until further hearings are held and a final decision is handed down. And while advocates, voters, and progressive candidates can continue to move as if the law had never been signed, the landscape for voting rights remains difficult in Mississippi. But advocates are quick to mention that they will continue to work to make progress. 

“We along with our partners and our co-counsel are absolutely prepared to do everything that we can to protect the rights of citizens with disabilities,” said Walton. “Whatever that road looks like going forward, we’re prepared to fight for accessibility in Mississippi’s voting system.”

Correction (Sept. 14): An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of the communications officer from Disability Rights Mississippi.

This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.