September 15, 2020 9:43:43 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
As is common with presidential elections, area circuit clerks expect a big turnout on Nov. 3.
It's how those votes are cast that may set this year's election apart.
While many states are altering their election laws to allow for citizens to vote absentee in response to the COVID-19 virus, Mississippi has yet to change its absentee guidelines other than to provide for absentee voting by those under quarantine or are caring for someone with the virus.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Mississippi Center for Justice have filed a lawsuit asking a judge to clarify that voters concerned about COVID-19 can vote absentee for the November election, but until a ruling on the suit, Mississippi's absentee voting guidelines will remain unchanged. In Mississippi, those who are not able to go to the polls because of work, permanent disability, being out of town on election day or are 65 years old or older are eligible to vote by absentee ballot -- either in-person or by mail.
"There's a lot of confusion about whether you can vote absentee to avoid COVID," Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk Tony Rook said. "We're still waiting for some guidance from the Secretary of State's Office, but we do expect there will be a very high demand for absentee ballots. We've always had a lot of absentee voting, but this year, I think it will be a record."
Lowndes County Circuit Clerk Teresa Barskdale also expects heavy demand for absentee ballots, which will be available Monday.
"We expect the turnout to be very heavy," Barksdale said. "We're already seeing a big jump in voter registration, so voting overall will be higher. I think, with the virus, a lot of older voters will decide to vote absentee instead of going to the polls."
Barksdale is encouraging people who intend to vote via absentee ballot to vote in-person at the circuit clerk's office before election day.
Rook, meanwhile, said in-person absentee voting could be a slow process.
"If the demand for absentee voting is what we think it's going to be, you have to wait longer to vote with in-person absentee than you would actually going to the polls on election day," he said.
While preparing for the Nov. 3 election both Barksdale and Rook are preparing for special elections for state Legislature seats on Tuesday.
In Oktibbeha County, a special election is being held to fill the unexpired term of District 15 Sen. Gary Jackson, while in Lowndes County, a special election will fill the unexpired term of District 37 Rep. Gary Chism.
Rook said absentee voting for the special election has been high -- 170 absentee ballots cast so far -- which may be a portend of what to expect on Nov. 3, as well.
"That's a really high number for a special election," Rook said.
Barksdale said about 100 absentee ballots have been cast in the District 37 election.
Regardless of whether the current lawsuit opens the door for more absentee voting, there is one change that may have an impact on both Tuesday's election and the Nov. 3 election.
"This year, absentee ballots that are postmarked on the day of the election will be counted," she said. "Before, the ballots had to be postmarked by 5 p.m. the day before the election. What that means is that we may not have the final results for a week or longer. In a close race, that could mean we won't know who won on election night."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]