JACKSON — Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson said Wednesday that he opposes widespread use of mail-in voting, even during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the Republican said he thinks current Mississippi law allows flexibility for early voting by absentee ballot, and that could shorten lines at polling places on election day.
Watson, who is the state’s top elections official, said voters could seek absentee ballots by declaring they have a temporary disability because of COVID-19. That could include people who are ill with the virus or who have compromised immune systems or underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to it. He said local election clerks would determine whether to grant the request and allow that person to vote absentee.
“They’re going to know if somebody is pulling their leg,” Watson said to reporters after he spoke to members of the state House and Senate elections committees.
Asked for an example of how a clerk could reject a voter’s claim of temporary disability to get an absentee ballot, Watson said: “‘I saw you in Walmart yesterday, and now you want to use this excuse?’ … We want to make sure that it’s legit.”
Current Mississippi law allows absentee voting by anyone who is 65 or older, or for voters of any age who are permanently disabled or will be out of their home county on election day. People who have to work on election day when the polls are open also are allowed to vote absentee.
Democratic Rep. Zakiya Summers of Jackson is a former Hinds County election commissioner. She said Wednesday that Mississippi’s absentee voting process is “cumbersome.” She asked Watson if he supports widespread mail-in voting, and he said no.
Watson — a former state senator who became secretary of state in January — said he would support a tweak to state law to allow more widespread absentee voting anytime the governor has declared an emergency, whether for a pandemic or for other reasons such as hurricanes.
Several other states have changed some of their election laws to ease the process of voting during the pandemic. For example, the South Carolina governor recently signed a measure that allows any voter to cast an absentee ballot for next week’s primaries.