When the state elections of 2019 rolled around, I said Michael Watson, the Republican candidate for Secretary of State, was the most dangerous name on the entire ballot, given the nature of the office he was seeking. The primary responsibility of the Secretary of State is running state and federal elections in Mississippi. It’s no place for a rabid partisan like Watson.
Nothing that has transpired since has disabused me of that notion, certainly not his comments during a TV interview last week in which Watson complained of “woke college students” who are “uninformed” and therefore “not prepared and ready to vote.”
I’ll say this for Watson: He is a Mississippian for all seasons. The ideas he expressed in that TV interview would fall comfortably in line with the state’s Jim Crow establishment thinking 100 years ago. Back then, there was also a popular sentiment that some people were “uninformed” and “not prepared to vote.” These people were Black, and one of the ways the state disenfranchised them was through a literacy test. Watson hasn’t proposed that…yet.
On Tuesday, prior to his appearance at the Lowndes County Republican Women’s luncheon at Lion Hills Center, Watson was given an opportunity to walk back those comments.
He did not. Instead, he blamed the criticism his comments evoked on — you guessed it — a hack job by the media using only a snippet of his comments and taking them out of context.
Lest injustice done to Watson in this space, here is every word of what he said during that interview about students:
“Think about all these woke college university students now who would automatically be registered to vote, whether they wanted to or not. Again, if they didn’t know to opt out, they would be automatically registered to vote. And then they receive this mail-in ballot that they didn’t even know was coming because they didn’t know they registered to vote. You have an uninformed citizen who may not be prepared and ready to vote, automatically it’s forced on them. ‘Hey, go and make a choice’ and our country’s going to pay for those choices.”
The use of the term “woke” is particularly revealing since it is a term used for Black people and others who are “woke” to racial justice and social justice issues.
Using that characterization makes it pretty clear that Watson, despite his lip-service about how he wants every eligible person to vote regardless of their race or political preference, believes some Mississippians, particularly “woke” Mississippians, are uninformed and not ready to vote.
It’s an untenable position to maintain and Watson seemed to know it Tuesday, shifting the intent of his remarks to another weary-old boogeyman.
“That was a term that I did use,” Watson said. “When we talk about it, really (it’s about) college professors and what we’ve seen for so long here. Our universities tend to trend toward the left. It’s unfortunate that we see that. That’s why you’re seeing all the civil unrest all across the country. Back to the intent (of what I said) is that we want everyone to vote. If you are a legal citizen, 18 or older and you are competent, you should be able to vote.”
I’ll leave Watson’s bizarre view on the cause of civil unrest for another day. The issue at hand: It is not the Secretary of State’s right to judge who is competent. That’s a gross violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He should know better.
If this were simply a gaffe, an off-the-cuff comment that Watson was too proud to walk back, it might be something that could be overlooked. But those comments represent a pattern of behavior for Watson, who has pushed legislation to purge the voting rolls of anyone who hasn’t voted in two consecutive federal elections, something likely to affect Black Mississippians to a greater degree than white citizens. Another bill he supported would be to use a federal database to eliminate noncitizens (read Hispanics) from the voter rolls, something that was tried in Texas and resulted in disenfranchising many naturalized citizens.
When one group of people — Blacks, college students, Hispanics — are scrutinized more closely than another group just because they are who they are, there’s a word for that: bigotry.
Watson says all of his efforts are about protecting election integrity.
That’s almost the right word. The better word, the word that more accurately describes Watson’s view, is “purity.”
In Watson’s world, purity/integrity is lily white and conservative. By his own words, it’s clear he’ll do everything within his power to promote that idea.
Watson, then, is not only wrong.
He is dangerous.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]