As October unfolds, Mississippi State Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, is watching the rising case numbers in what threatens to be the third spike in Mississippi's COVID-19 pandemic, and he fears for the worst.
In the waning days of the nearly endless 2020 legislative session, Blount was part of a last-ditch effort to expand access to absentee voting this year. His bill, aimed at reducing packed polling places in November, did not make it to the floor. Dying with it were Mississippi's chances to challenge its reputation for the strictest laws regulating absentee voting in the nation.
"To me it's a complete no-brainer, and a total failure on behalf of the legislative leadership and Republicans," Blount told the Jackson Free Press in a recent interview.
Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson does not appear to share Blount's concerns. "Our plan is good, our plan is safe," he announced on Oct. 2, joining a small pool of reporters for an update on election safety.
Watson used the live-streamed event to assure Mississippians that a safe election was well in hand during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, even as Gov. Tate Reeves had ended the statewide mask mandate two days before, prefacing a sharp, sudden uptick in new cases.
The secretary of state described visiting a special election in Humphreys County on Aug. 4, 2020, in which all poll workers assured him that they felt safe and well protected. That election took place on the first day of the statewide mask mandate—an order that had meaningful impact on reducing the spread of coronavirus in Mississippi. Watson argued that those restrictions have never applied to polling places, nor would they on Nov. 3.
Watson's position that it is unconstitutional to require masks at the polling place is consistent with the state's guidance throughout COVID-19. But it is unclear how much that argument has prevented adherence to mask mandates at the polls thus far.
More importantly, the size of the gatherings anticipated for a presidential election are completely incomparable to the small special elections that have taken place in 2020 already.
'A Missed Opportunity'
A few legislators who saw the threat of packed polling places on Election Day during a pandemic mounted one last attempt to expand voting options for Mississippians concerned about threats to their safety from the virus as this year's endless legislative session came to a close.
Sen. Blount, a Jackson Democrat who worked as the communications director for former Secretary of State Eric Clark before holding office himself, was one of a group of legislators who attempted to bring up bills to provide for more ballot access outside of Election Day.
"My bill would've done two things-—it would've allowed any Mississippian to vote early, in person, at the courthouse, and it would've allowed people who were currently eligible to vote by mail to not have to get their documents notarized ... which is a real onerous procedure," Blount said in the interview.
In years past, Mississippians have counted on the U.S. Postal Service to make that process easier. Mississippi State Code § 23-15-631 explicitly allows for any "United States postmaster, assistant United States postmaster, United States postal supervisor, clerk in charge of a contract postal station, or other officer having authority to administer an oath or take an acknowledgment" to serve an attesting witness for the purposes of absentee ballots.
Simply put, this means that the two parts of the absentee voting process—the application for the ballot and the ballot itself, both of which require a witness "authorized to administer oath," usually a notary, can be completed at the post office.
But, in spite of the immense danger of COVID-19, USPS is pushing enforcement of a rule this year that explicitly bars postal workers from serving in this role while on the clock.
David Walton, a spokesman for the United States Post Office, said the ban was written policy long preceding 2020. The Jackson Free Press obtained a Sept. 29 email to all Mississippi postmasters about the 2020 presidential elections, specifically reinforcing the policy of prohibiting postal workers from serving as witnesses for absentee ballots "in their official capacity with the Postal Service."
The email acknowledged that "some state laws specifically authorize Postal Service employees to provide a witness signature on ballot envelopes. However, performing this function is not within the scope of a postal employee's duties and is not required by the Postal Service's regulations."
After the interview, Walton provided a statement reflecting USPS' official response to the enforcement of the policy. "The U.S. Postal Service's number-one priority between now and the November election is the secure, timely delivery of the nation's Election Mail. Postal Service policy prohibits employees from serving as witnesses in their official capacity while on duty, due in part to the potential operational impacts. The Postal Service does not prohibit an employee from serving as a witness in their personal capacity off-duty, if they so choose."
Walton confirmed that a U.S. Postal Service worker could perform the role assigned to them in Mississippi state code by, for example, clocking out for their lunch break and using their personal time to witness the ballot.
Blount's bill also would have provided no-excuse early voting for all Mississippians, a solution he said would reduce crowd sizes on Election Day without even the potential for vote fraud. "You're going to walk past a sheriff's deputy, look eye-to-eye with a trained election worker, show your photo ID and cast your ballot," Blount said.
Reps. Shanda Yates, D-Jackson; Jansen Owen, R-Poplarville; and Kent McCarty, R-Hattiesburg, joined Blount in filing the bill, which died when the Legislature adjourned on Oct. 10.
In an interview with the Jackson Free Press, Yates lamented the danger of crowded polling places as the pandemic rages. "We know that large groups of people are a bad idea, and generally not permitted in many parts of the state," she said. "But we want to concentrate essentially all voting to one day, so that we have these large groups of people congregating and standing in line to vote at polling places.
"It's nonsensical to do that."
Yates stressed that individuals who are eligible for expanded early voting should take the opportunity as quickly as is possible. "People that are over the age of 65, who are disabled, and who are under a medical quarantine or are caring for a (quarantined) family member ... those are all valid reasons."
Watson celebrated the dedication of election workers and promised dedicated hygiene protocols at all polling places on Nov. 3. "The focus is on safety and cleanliness," Watson told the group of reporters. "You'll see hand sanitizers, you'll see gloves, facemasks. (We'll be) making sure individuals do not have to share pens. You'll see additional poll workers ... to clean the machines, to clean doorknobs and high-touch surfaces."
Proper cleaning protocols are helpful in preventing touch transmission of COVID-19, a less-common route of infection. But many health experts caution that a sole focus on cleaning and sanitization can expose individuals to droplet spread—from unmasked individuals breathing, speaking and coughing near others—which is universally believed to be the primary method of coronavirus transmission.
Rutgers University Professor of Microbiology Dr. Emanuel Goldman told ABC News in late September that what he called "hygiene theater" can "change the focus from what will really protect you, and that is protecting what you breathe."
Dr. Bhagyashri Navalkele, medical director of infection prevention and control at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, explained in an Oct. 5 interview that there was little chance that proper hygiene protocols could make a venue like a polling place safe in the absence of proper mask usage, especially given long lines and large crowds.
"If you're standing within six feet of someone and you don't have a mask on, you can easily spread it to others," Navalkele told the Jackson Free Press.
At his press conference, Watson seemed content that individuals worried about catching the virus could choose to wear a mask to protect themselves. "I think individuals should make that decision on their own," he explained. "I suggest they wear a mask just to be safe." He also confirmed that all poll workers would be masked as well.
But as reporter Ashton Pittman confirmed in the Mississippi Free Press, "poll workers may ask masked voters to momentarily remove their masks to verify their identities," meaning it is voters who choose to wear a mask who may, in fact, have a state mandate imposed upon them under the state's voter-identification law.
Moreover, as many experts have confirmed, the primary value of a mask is protecting others, not yourself. A mask, properly fitted over nose and mouth, eliminates droplet spread coming from an infected individual and massively reduces aerosol spread, transmitted through breathing and speaking in enclosed spaces.
But a masked individual exposed to an infected, unmasked voter may still be at high risk for contracting the virus. COVID-19 may be transmitted through contact with any mucus membrane, including the eyes.
"The primary mode of transmission is an unmasked sick person—symptomatic or asymptomatic—coming in and spreading their droplets around in an enclosed space," Navalkele said. She thus confirmed that a single unmasked voter, even displaying no symptoms, could infect many others at a polling place, even those wearing masks.
As part of a last ditch effort to protect voters, MSDH announced on Oct. 12 that it would provide free masks and face shields to voters over 64 and those with chronic illnesses at all county health department testing sites from now until the election.
Sharp Increase in Mississippi
As of press time, Mississippi's rolling seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases is 609, a sharp and sudden increase compared to recent lows in September. The new upswing in viral transmission follows on the heels of an end to the statewide mask mandate, prompting State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs to warn on Oct. 7 that "our equilibrium is unraveling." Already, the Mississippi State Department of Health warns of increasingly full hospitals in many of the same areas stretched thin during the summer peaks of the disease.
Despite all the danger, Mississippi maintains the strictest voting requirements of any state in the U.S. Mississippi joins six other states, Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, New York and Indiana, in requiring excuses for absentee voting. It joins five—Kentucky, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Missouri and Connecticut—that do not allow for early voting.
But many of the other states with similar restrictions, such as South Carolina, have passed legislation allowing for risk of exposure to COVID-19 to serve as an excuse for voting absentee. Mississippi does not. The Democracy Initiative, a progressive voting-rights organization, said in an Oct. 8 release that "Only one remaining state—Mississippi—still has in-person voting on Election Day as the only option available to all voters."
Jarvis Dortch, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, told the Jackson Free Press in an Oct. 13 interview he worried that "we're setting things up for failure Nov. 3." He says we are risking a superspreader event that could drive hospitalizations and deaths up in the colder winter months.
"If you look at all the states we border, they have early voting, or they at least let people vote absentee due to COVID," he said in an interview this week.
Dortch, who previously served as a Democratic representative in the Mississippi Legislature, resigned in early July to take leadership of the Mississippi ACLU, warning at that time that "our democracy and voting rights are under assault."
In the interview, Dortch explained that he had participated in attempts to expand absentee-voting access in previous years, only to be stymied by the leadership of then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in the Senate. The lack of progress even in 2020 worries him, but Dortch said there is still cause for hope.
"There are Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature that agree we need to expand early voting," Dortch said.
"It's about getting leadership that's on board," he added.
Regardless of what is to come, Mississippi, which has suffered from one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 per capita of any state in the nation, stands alone in its restrictions upon voters, a pattern that 2020 has done little to change.
Email state reporter Nick Judin at [email protected].