Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson said Tuesday his opposition to a statewide mail-based voting system is because he’s not sure it’s the safest option for Mississippi — or if it’s even a legitimate possibility anytime soon.
Speaking with the Rotary Club of Columbus via Zoom, the first-term Republican recounted a recent conversation he had with Kim Wyman, secretary of state for Washington, one of five states where elections are conducted entirely by mail. Wyman, a fellow member of the GOP, has long been a proponent of the system, which is significantly more popular nationwide with Democrats than Republicans.
On the call, Watson had one major question for Wyman regarding Mississippi’s voting future: “Could we even get there if we wanted to?”
“Michael, it’s impossible,” Wyman told him. “It took us five years to implement a vote by mail system. If you try to do it now by November, it’s going to be a catastrophic failure. Don’t even try it.”
Watson said a state in which 60 percent of voters currently vote by mail could likely set up a complete system by Election Day on Nov. 3. In Mississippi, just 3.5 percent of ballots are mailed in, showing the state isn’t near ready to set up a universal mail-in voting system just yet.
“There’s no way in the world logistically that we could get there,” Watson said.
Watson, who took office Jan. 9, said he had other oppositions to what has become an increasingly politically charged issue during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll conducted in May, 77 percent of voters who are registered Democrats or lean Democratic would support a federal law requiring states to mail ballots to all voters, while only 42 percent of Republicans agreed.
The secretary of state said he was concerned with fraud when it comes to mail-in voting, even citing ballots tampered with in favor of GOP Congressman Mark Harris in North Carolina in a tightly contested 2018 election as a reminder that Watson’s objections aren’t purely political.
“This is not a partisan bill to me,” he said. “This is a security and integrity of elections bill.”
Hand-in-hand with the issue of fraud, Watson said, are the voter rolls in individual counties, some of which are far from accurate. He said cleaning up the voter rolls is a barrier to clear before the conversation about statewide vote by mail can truly begin.
Of Mississippi’s 82 counties, Watson said 36 reported that more than 90 percent of their voting-age populations were registered voters — a number too high to be believable. In six counties, that number was more than 100 percent — “clearly impossible,” Watson said. (Watson, who is from Pascagoula, said his home county, Jackson County, reported a more typical number of 75 percent.)
He said accuracy in voter registration is “where it all starts,” pointing out that county circuit clerks and elections commissioners who either don’t take their job seriously or are unskilled with technology are typically the reasons for the incongruencies. When that happens, it’s the responsibility of the Secretary of State’s office to “call balls and strikes,” Watson said.
“I don’t mind going against the grain,” he said. “When I see something that’s right or wrong, I don’t mind calling it out. I don’t mind negative press; I don’t mind heat coming our way.”
One issue that COVID-19 has brought to light is the provision granting absentee ballots to people who are temporarily disabled. Lawsuits in Texas and North Carolina have raised the question: Does fear of contracting the coronavirus count as temporary disability?
Watson said the Mississippi Legislature will be fine-tuning its stance on the issue in the months leading up to Election Day as he works to maintain an open, safe and fair system.
“I want it easier to vote, but I also have to protect the integrity of the election process,” Watson said.
What Election Day will look like
While Watson is more than hesitant to move toward a statewide vote by mail system, he said Mississippi hopes to expand in-person absentee voting at county clerks’ offices during the pandemic and in case of similar events to come.
It’s one of the many changes he expects to see in the election process as a result of COVID-19.
At precincts, poll workers will be equipped with masks, gloves and — if they want them — face shields. Hand sanitizer will be available, bailiffs will do their best to space voters six feet apart, and paper straws will be distributed for counties, including Lowndes County, who use touch-screen voting.
A bill with “good momentum” in the Legislature would increase the current cap on poll managers (nine) per precinct, which Watson said would help with the counting of absentee ballots among other things.
Alternatively, Watson is considering allowing absentee ballots to be counted at county courthouses rather than in precincts to lessen the burden on poll workers.
“I just think it’s going to be a cleaner process, a better process, for elections this year,” he said.
State must step up census response
Currently, 55.9 percent of Mississippi households have filled out their 2020 census forms.
That doesn’t bode well, Watson said.
If the state merely matches its numbers from the 2010 census — a 61.3 percent response rate — Mississippi will lose $13.5 billion over the next 10 years in federal funding for transportation, health care and education.
“Those are important things to Mississippi, and as you know, we’re a big state for federal dollars here,” Watson said. “Do I wish it was different? Sure. I do. But again, this is a constitutional thing, and we have to continue to count this every 10 years.”
Watson warned about other changes a low response rate could incur. Thanks to redistricting based on census representation, the state also lost a seat in Congress in 2010, going from five to four representatives.
“That’s directly impacting us,” Watson said. “That is our voice in Washington, D.C., and we lost one.”
He encouraged Mississippians to fill out their census forms by mail or online or by calling the U.S. Census Bureau ahead of the Oct. 31 deadline.