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June 25, 2020

Mississippi needs to ensure safe, equal access to ballot box in November

The recent police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have forced a national conversation on systemic racism.  Across the America, protesters have demanded that the government empower marginalized communities of color. 

For me, empowerment starts with access to the ballot box. 

Over the course of our history, however, the manner in which the state of Mississippi has administered elections has disenfranchised people of color. Whether through the location of far-flung polling places or the implementation of inflexible registration and voting guidelines, superficially administrative decisions have made it harder – if not impossible – for people of color to vote. 

As the state of Mississippi prepares to administer the November elections during the COVID-19 pandemic, our state officials must be conscious of the impacts their decisions will have on the voting rights of people of color and be deliberate in ensuring equal access to the ballot box.

The November elections will not look like any other in American history. According to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,  Robert Redfield, we could also see a second, more devastating, wave of infections. That means that Mississippi election officials must accommodate the higher voter turnout typical of presidential elections in a manner that limits the spread of COVID-19.

We have already seen states fail to ensure safe access to voting this year. Wisconsin held its primary on April 7. Despite a state-wide stay-at-home order, it refused to further expand absentee ballot deadlines, disenfranchising thousands of voters. It also reduced polling locations across the state – Milwaukee went from 180 polling location to five.  Together, these seemingly administrative decisions obstructed disproportionately the ability to people of color to vote. 

Polling places throughout Georgia were relocated and 80 polling locations were closed in metro Atlanta, causing some voters to wait up to five hours to vote. Once again, these decisions disproportionately interfered with the voting rights of people of color.

All Mississippi voters deserve an election that is safe, secure and auditable. A safe election adheres to social distancing guidelines, which means we need more, not fewer, polling locations, and no-excuse early voting.  We must remove the current prohibitions in Mississippi against early voting, online voter registration, same-day voter registration, and no-excuse absentee voting. It will save lives. Early voting can help the voting process run more smoothly, reduce stress on the voting system on Election Day, decrease voter lines, and increase access to voting. 

We also need to increase vote-by-mail. The CDC specifically recommends states “encourage mail-in methods of voting if allowed in the jurisdiction” given the coronavirus threat. Five states already conduct their elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Their higher voter turnout and lower voter fraud are models to consider in Mississippi. Already, Republican governors and election officials in Ohio and Maryland have moved to 100% absentee voting this primary election season. 

Vote-by-mail systems are secure and voter fraud is rare. This year, expanding early voting and vote-by-mail could save lives. I urge state officials to prepare for vote-by-mail now to ensure all voters receive their ballots and can cast them on time and that election offices can process them quickly.

A secure election means no foreign interference. Foreign nations attacked election systems in 2016. Over the last year, Congress has appropriated $825 million in election security grant funding to replace outdated voting systems and to ensure safe, secure, auditable elections. As chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, I have urged social media platforms to monitor for misinformation about the administration of elections and foreign influence operations that seize on divisive issues to spread disinformation and sow discord.

An auditable election means that votes counted are as they are cast. We must trust, but verify our election results, and there must be a post-election audit requirement in Mississippi.

Voting in November should not become the newest version of Russian roulette. No one should have to choose between their right to vote or their health. Already the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color, it must not be used as an excuse to implement polices that also disproportionately affect our right to vote.

Allowing early voting and no-excuse vote-by-mail while locating accessible polling locations throughout diverse communities in the state is the only way to ensure that no one is disenfranchised in November.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, is the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security.

By:  Rep. Bennie G. Thompson
Source: The Clarion Ledger