Zack Wallace, the Hinds County circuit clerk for the past five years, is seeing a record level of absentee voting this year as the Nov. 3 general election draws near.
"This year for this election, I know we have 7,717 (absentee voters) as of right now," he told the Jackson Free Press on Oct. 16 in his office. "If my numbers are correct, in 2008, based on the system, we had 7,009 absentee voters; in 2016, we had 5,309, so right now, we are over 7000, and we still have two weeks left to vote, two full weeks."
As of Oct. 26, the number of received absentee ballots in Hinds had grown to 11,772 after a weekend where voters waited in lines around the block to cast their absentee ballots in person in downtown Jackson.
Absentee voting started Sept. 12. People can come to the circuit clerk's office in downtown Jackson and in Raymond to vote absentee until the Saturday before Election Day—Oct. 31 this year—if they provide a valid reason and present a photo ID. People can request an absentee ballot by mail until Nov. 2.
The exhaustive list of acceptable photo-identification cards based on Secretary of State Michael Watson's guidelines include: a driver's license; a government issued photo ID card; a United States passport; a government employee photo; identification card; a firearms license; a student photo ID issued by an accredited Mississippi university, college, or community/junior college; a United States military photo ID; a tribal photo ID; any other photo ID issued by any branch, department, agency or entity of the United States government or any State government; or a Mississippi voter identification card.
The secretary of state's website says voters can call 1-844-MSVoter (1-844-678-6837) with voter ID queries or assistance in obtaining a Mississippi Voter Identification Card.
"(The absentee voters can) come in person; they must have a reason. We ask for their ID, also if someone is 65 years or older, or they have a temporary or permanent disability," Wallace said. For those who are out of town on Election Day, the circuit clerk can mail an application ballot, which must be notarized. Those with a temporary or permanent disability don't need to have their ballot notarized; they can have a witness, aged 18 and above, who is not necessarily a registered voter.
"We are talking college students, truck drivers, nurses—some nurses can't vote if they are going to be required to work some 12-hour shift," Wallace added concerning those covered by absentee voting. "During this pandemic, you have some nurses, maybe they are out of town, and not coming back until after the election, we mail them a ballot, no problem at all. We just try to make sure that we get the address right."
On the Saturday before Election Day, the close of absentee voting time is extended from 12 noon to 5 p.m., Wallace said. The absentee voting taking place at the circuit clerk's office is with 6-feet social-distancing markings on the floor to mitigate COVID-19 spread. To date, the virus has killed 178 in Hinds County out of 7,987 recorded infections as of Oct. 26.
Special Rules Until December
Absentee voting previously only covered those 65 or older, those who won't be in the county on election day, the temporarily or permanently disabled, or those at work that day. This year, Mississippi legislators passed House Bill 1521 to prepare for elections during COVID-19. The law expanded the reasons for which one can request an absentee ballot to include "a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19" or a person caring for a dependent with the virus.
Other provisions in the new law included the necessity of absentee mail-in ballots to be postmarked by Election Day and received no later than five business days after the election. Also, absentee ballots cast at the office of the circuit clerk will be counted on Election Day and announced simultaneously with all other votes cast that day.
Wallace said he is concerned about the time it may take to send out absentee ballots and receive them back. Wallace urges the electorate to lobby legislators to make changes to the electoral process in the future. "We definitely need to talk to our Legislature, share our concerns with them," Wallace said. "If you don't share your concerns with them, they can't change the law to benefit the voters."
"While you have some voters who get their mail in two days, we have some other voters get their mail in a week, week and a half, something we don't have control over," Wallace added. "So I try not to let that bother me, but we definitely want to make sure the voters are taken care of."
Secretary of State Watson in his Safety-at-the-Polls Guide said that "any voter exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19 on Election Day, which include but are not limited to coughing, vomiting, headaches, fever, sore throat, congestion, or loss of taste and/or smell, is encouraged to vote curbside and not enter the polling place."
Wallace explained how that will work: "When someone pulls up (at the polls) and (do) not get out of the vehicle, they will have to call the polling station or get someone to go in and let poll workers know that someone needs curbside voting; the poll worker will come to the car and let them vote." They can find out the number of their precinct by calling 601-968-6555.
Use Current Address for Voting
The Hinds circuit clerk said that people should not wait for Election Day to update and verify their voter registration based on where they stay.
"If we send you your jury summons (or) we send you a notification card to say your precinct has changed, (we) don't want the mail to be returned to us, and you are marked inactive," Wallace said.
"If I send you your jury summons, and you have moved to another address across town, which is still in Hinds County, the jury summons will come back to me," he added. "If we keep sending you some information, eventually the system is going to go ahead and mark you inactive. And when you go to the polls and vote, they have you as inactive. That is why I tell people to update and verify their information regularly, even if they move within Hinds County. I won't know you move unless you tell me."
Wallace said people should make sure that they are registered to vote in their current address; those who move will be able to vote in a different place as long as it is in Hinds County.
"It's our responsibility to vote," he said. "It's our responsibility to update our information, so our vote will count. Our future is our responsibility."
Intending voters can check www.yallvote.sos.ms.gov for the current status of their voter registration.
161,000 Registered Voters in Hinds
The body charged with conducting the November election in the 108 precincts of Hinds County is the five-member election commission. Chairwoman and District 2 representative Toni Johnson told the Jackson Free Press in her office in downtown Jackson that Hinds County has more than 161,000 voters and said the commission is working hard to make voting safe.
"Vote, vote, vote," she said in her message to the people of the county. "It's going to be safe; it's going to be secure, please be patient, be kind, and of course, practice social distancing and let's adhere to the (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines. We are doing our best to get people (fast) in and out and not disenfranchise people."
Polls will open on Nov. 3 at 7 a.m. and officially close at 7 p.m, with those in line at that time still able to cast their votes.
"We encourage voters to wear masks or face coverings," Johnson said. "We will have those provided for voters; we will also have Lysol, bleach wipes, hand sanitizers, as well as face shields on hands for the poll workers."
Other measures to make the polling places safe include putting stickers on the ground to mark the recommended 6 feet of social distancing inside the precincts and limiting the number of people inside at a time, Johnson explained.
"If voters do not wear masks, they won't be turned away," the chairwoman added, reflecting the decisions of state leaders to not mandate masks for voting. "But we are encouraging people to cover their faces on the inside (of the precinct)."
Johnson said the poll workers have all completed training, which incorporated talks about social distancing. "(We hired) extra poll workers to make sure that machines, tables and tablets are being sanitized at least once an hour as the voters flow in and out of the precincts," she said. "We will have poll workers that will be screening and cleaning; we ask them to do it for at least once every hour."
"We ask voters to be patient, be kind because we do anticipate long lines," she added. "As you see outside for absentee voting, the poll workers are doing the best they can."
There are about 30 billboards placed across the county that say: "Voting in Hinds County is Safe and Secure; Vote on Nov 3rd." Johnson said the county put them up to put the people's minds at rest and encourage participation in the voting process.
"We have our precincts staffed appropriately," the commissioner said. "We have taken the measures that we need to do to make sure voters have what they need. They should not be afraid to come out and vote and cast their ballot."
The voters can determine their precinct location by inputting their address in the polling-place locator at www.sos.ms.gov/PollingPlace.
WTJ's Get-Out-the-Vote Effort
Working Together Jackson, an organization that brings together institutions to drive development in the city, is involved in increasing voter participation in the coming election. They are setting up a phone-call effort to encourage people to come out and vote.
On Oct. 17, WTJ, in association with the League of Women Voters, set up stands offering free notary services for those voting absentee at two Jackson locations—the Jackson Medical Mall at Woodrow Wilson Avenue and New Horizon Church International on Ellis Avenue near Interstate 20.
WTJ Senior Organizer Chevon Chatman said a "splattering" of people showed up, hence they came up with a new strategy—offering free notary services by appointment. Interested voters can call 601-376-9461 between now and Nov. 2, come with an ID and the absentee voting application or ballot to be notarized.
The collaboration also has an initiative to encourage voter participation in this election. Chatman said they want to reach thousands of people before Election Day and will set up a phone bank on Nov. 3 to call on people to go out and vote.
"Our goal is to have 100 WTJ leaders (and) people within our network contacting about 3,000 infrequent voters who are registered to vote in Jackson," she told the Jackson Free Press. "We got the list from One Voice (a Jackson-based advocacy group). The search query was around people who voted in 2012 and/or 2018 but not 2016."
"We have targeted areas in Jackson, mostly in south and west Jackson, people who fit that criteria," she added. "We have people contacting them probably on average three times between now and the election, to turn out more voters we suspect might not vote based on their track record.
Those who volunteer to call people will have with them a voter guide prepared by WTJ, and information regarding the respondent's precinct and how to get there on Election Day if they need transportation help.
Chatman said the group is not transporting voters, but pointing them to Mississippi MOVE at 662-205-MOVE for a ride to the polls.
Helping Others Get to the Polling Station
Mississippi MOVE has set up an operation covering dozens of counties in the state to help voters get to the polls if needed. The group has been doing this for the past five years but decided on a bigger push for this general election.
Mississippi MOVE Technology and Communications Lead Sabir Abdul-Haqq told the Jackson Free Press that the 501c3 organization collaborates with different organizations to publicize its offer of free Election Day transit service.
"We are getting the word out to communities through community partners like NAACP, like the League of Women Voters, like some of the schools that have civic engagement or community organizing functions, churches," he said.
"People can call our number, and they can text us, leave us a voicemail, and we've got some dispatch staff that will get that information to drivers in the community, and we'll be able to take people to the poll."
In the 2019 Mississippi state election, the organization offered 60 rides in the Jackson metro area and the Pine Belt area, mostly in Hattiesburg in Forrest county, Jones County, and on the Gulf Coast in Biloxi and Gulfport.
"We have helped folks who are elderly and disabled, and folks who may have been out-of-state students that just registered to vote, but did not have reliable transportation to get to the voting precinct," Abdul-Haqq said.
"MOVE stands for Motivating and Organizing Voters for Empowerment," he added. "We don't care who you vote for; we don't care the color of your skin, demographics, who you worship, any of those things."
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused Mississippi MOVE to make some modifications to its operations. It received a donation of 10,000 face masks from another organization, and the drivers will wear them for the Nov. 3 election, and they will provide passengers with the same. They will also make hand sanitizer available.
On Election Day
Hinds County Election Commission Chairwoman Johnson described what the people should expect when they come into the precinct on Election Day.
"When you come in, you will need to have your ID; the poll worker will check your ID to see if your name is on the poll book; they will then ask you to sign the pad because we will be using electronic poll books. You will sign your name, and the poll worker will then give you the ID back," Johnson said.
On the ballot, the voter has nine choices to make. There are candidates listed for president, Senate and House of Representatives elections, three nonpartisan judicial elections, and three ballot initiatives.
"Once you get the ballot, the voter will have a few minutes to go over to the private area to complete their ballot," Johnson said. "Then they will proceed to the machine to scan it in. Typically, you'll get a sticker, and that is the end of the process."
Email story tips to city/county reporter Kayode Crown at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @kayodecrown.
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