In Light of COVID-19, Mississippi Should Embrace Expanded Absentee Voting

More than two thirds of Mississippians are worried that the COVID-19 outbreak may cause disruptions in the coming election, and understandably so. Americans are in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis and have been warned that there might be a second coronavirus wave in the fall and winter – when general elections will be in full swing.

Medical professionals have worked valiantly to fend off the virus, but a vaccine may not be available until sometime in 2021. This means that our best method to limit COVID-19’s spread is to continue avoiding crowds and practice social distancing. However, when it comes to voting, that may not be possible in Mississippi, given that the state has stringent absentee voting rules. In light of the persistent coronavirus, however, Mississippi officials should expand access to absentee voting to allow Mississippians a safer mode of voting.

The risks of in-person voting aren’t hypothetical either. Wisconsin recently held in-person primary elections, and despite the state’s efforts, thus far, at least 52 people who participated have tested positive for COVID-19. The reality is that many more people likely have contracted the illness while performing their civic duty, and it could prove fatal for an untold number of them. This is exactly the kind of scenario that Mississippi needs to avoid and can with a few minor reforms.

As it stands, Mississippians are permitted to request and cast absentee ballots only if they meet specific criteria. These are limited to circumstances like being out of the country on election day or being a member of the congressional delegation.

However, the presence of a highly contagious virus is conspicuously absent from the list of government-approved excuses to receive an absentee ballot. Contrast this limitation with the fact that North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and 26 other states don’t require voters to provide any excuse to submit an absentee ballot, which certainly helps voters avoid cramped and sickly polling locations. What’s more, a total of five states, including the Republican stronghold of Utah, conduct elections entirely by mail – save for a few physical voting sites for people to use if they prefer.

Despite all of this, Mississippi officials have been reticent to loosen restrictions on absentee voting. While it’s difficult to know their justifications, other anti-absentee voting states argue that an expanded system will give Democrats an electoral edge and that voting fraud will increase, but both of these allegations lack real merit. First, Republicans and Democrats alike enjoy casting absentee ballots, even though it often doesn’t turn out well for Democrats. Deep blue Oregon was the first state to enact the vote by mail model. Not long after, Oregonians elected a Republican U.S. Senator.

More recently, Georgia’s political map has been shifting from a solidly Republican red to one with a purplish hue. Yet, in light of the coronavirus, the state mailed every single voter an absentee voter request form for the primary. Early reports show that “[a]bout 223,000 people pulled Republican ballots compared to 161,000 Democratic ballots.” While these numbers are preliminary, they suggest that Republican are big fans of voting from the comfort of their homes. Regardless of whether one party benefits or not, absentee voting should never be opposed for political purposes. Politicians ought to win on good ideas, not voter suppression.

However, voter suppression and fraud will always be part of the conversation, especially in the South. Thankfully, an expanded system of voting in absentia is a safe and secure way of exercising your civic duty. And states have access to effective technologies to track ballots and verify signatures. In fact, out of about 50 million ballots cast in Oregon, there have only been 15 verified cases of any kind of voter fraud and two proven cases of “Fraudulent Use Of Absentee Ballots,” according to the Heritage Foundation. That’s an absentee fraud rate of about 0.000004 percent. While every instance of voter fraud is deplorable, Oregon’s low absentee fraud rate is highly impressive.

The truth is that an expanded absentee voting system is exactly what Mississippi needs and what Mississippians want. Indeed, according to a recent poll, the majority of Mississippians stated that they want to move to an all vote by mail system for the November elections. It’s easy to see why. It would encourage voters to exercise their right and help them avoid crowded polling locations that are little more than virus-ridden petri dishes. Meanwhile, the system permits the state to secure the elections against fraud. In the end, there’s no real reason to restrict access to absentee voting.