Lawmakers to take on voter reform as one of their top priorities for the 2019 legislative session
District 29 Sen. David Blount hopes the recent elections will bring more attention to the state’s early voting laws, and spur lawmakers to support voter reform efforts during the 2019 legislative session.
The session is slated to begin January 8, and Blount will again introduce bills calling for online voter registration and no-fault early voting.
“The interest in this year’s elections shows a need for improvements,” he said. “We do need early voting. Thirty-seven states have early voting. We do need online voter registration. Most state’s have this, including our neighboring Southern states.”
Blount said the state’s antiquated voting laws make it more difficult, especially for out-of-state residents, to vote in run-off elections.
“Historically, Mississippi has not made it easy for people to register to vote and to cast a ballot. However, I know lots of Republicans and Democrats who have been frustrated this year and I hope it will inspire the legislature to act,” he said.
The 2018 general election was case-in-point. The election was held on November 6, with the run-offs on November 27, with the holidays complicating efforts for those wishing to cast absentee ballots in the runoff.
Under state law, voters must contact their respective circuit clerk’s office if they plan to vote absentee.
For voters living out of state, the clerk will mail an absentee voter application. From there, the applicant must fill out the form, have it notarized and mail it back before a ballot is sent. The ballot also must be notarized before it mailed back, Blount said. And for the ballot to count, it must be received by the clerk’s office the day before the election.
The same process must be completed by voters interested in casting ballots in the runoff.
Blount argued that with three state holidays (November 12 for Veteran’s Day and November 22 and 23 for Thanksgiving) falling between the general election and runoff this year, out-of-state voters were left with little time to fill out the documents, have them notarized and mail them in.
To ensure that their ballots were counted, many people drove home the weekend after Thanksgiving and stood in long lines outside their circuit clerk’s office to turn them in.
“My daughter is a college student and it was impossible for her to get an absentee ballot to the clerk’s office,” he said. “We want young people to participate in the process but this makes it hard for them.”
To help alleviate this and other problems, Blount will again introduce several reform measures, including a bill to allow for no-cause early voting and online voter registration, as well as a measure that would allow college students to apply for absentee voting online.
In 2018, measures doing all three of those things were double-referred and died in committee.
SB 2851 would have authorized the secretary of state to establish a Web site where students could submit absentee voter applications. Upon approval of those applications, absentee ballots would be automatically sent out during election.
SB 2906 would have authorized online voter registration and no-fault voting.
Right now, voters may vote absentee, as long as they meet one of 14 criteria established by state law. Mississippi code makes allowances for early voting if voters are serving in the military, will be out of the country, or are a student, teacher or administrator and not able to come home on election day.
Blount also will continue to support the passage of community improvement district (CID) legislation, a measure backed by many Northsiders.
CID legislation would allow neighborhoods to form special districts and levy a special tax within the district to pay for public improvements. The revenues could be used for anything from providing additional security to paving sidewalks and streets.
Efforts to pass the bill have fallen flat in previous sessions, and lawmakers are re-thinking their strategy on how to get the bill passed. One idea is to expand the CID legislation to include cities outside of Jackson. Last year’s bill would have allowed the districts only in the capital city.
“Sen. (Walter) Michel has taken the lead on that. I think it can help neighborhoods all across the state and should be expanded to other cities,” he said. “Absolutely we should do it.”
State employee pay raises, voter reform and criminal justice reform are among major items District 70 Rep. Kathy Sykes would like to tackle during the 2019 legislative session.
The representative has pre-filed a number of bills, including ones to allow for no-fault early voting, as well as one that would “ban the box” from employment applications.
The box Sykes was referring to is the one that asks applicants if they’ve ever been convicted of a felony.
“It keeps a lot of folks with felonies from even getting an interview,” she said. “A lot of times, when someone checks that box, it eliminates them without any further discussion.”
Sykes said interviewers would not be prohibited from asking the question during an actual interview, but the measure would simply prevent the box from being included on paper or online applications.
“This will hopefully give them (former convicts) an opportunity to sit down and explain their case to a potential employer, and possibly lead to gainful employment,” she said.
Sykes is hopeful the measure will gain traction, citing growing Republican support for criminal justice reform.
Recently, Gov. Phil Bryant hosted the “Mississippi Summit on Criminal Justice Reform.” Sykes, a Democrat read off a list of sponsors, including Pew Charitable Trusts, the American Conservative Union Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and others. “Most of them are conservative,’ she said.
Also, in the vein of criminal justice reform, Sykes will be backing legislation to give former convicted felons the right to vote.
“Upon completion of the terms and conditions of your incarceration or probation, your right to vote would be restored, with the exception of those who commit murder or crimes against children,” she said.
She pointed to efforts across the country where former felons are being re-enfranchised. During the 2018 mid-terms, voters in Florida approved a referendum giving former convicts the right to vote. And in 2016, more than 200,000 previously incarcerated Virginians were given the right to vote by then Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a report from National Public Radio stated.
Right now, in Mississippi, felons can have their rights restored only through petitioning the legislature or the governor, she said.
“So far, very few people each year are allowed that opportunity,” Sykes said. “That holds a lot of folks back, as well, from becoming a full citizen.”
According to NPR, between 8 and 10 percent of Mississippi’s voting-age population are unable to cast ballots because of their felony statuses.
“It relegates them to second-class status forever,” she said.
If Sykes has her way, voting will also be easier for Mississippians who don’t have records. She, along with other lawmakers, will again support implementing no-fault voting, which would allow voters to cast up to 21 days before a scheduled election day at their circuit clerk’s office, no questions ask.
Currently, state law lists several criteria individuals must meet to vote early, including being out of town on Election Day.
In other news, the lawmaker will be introducing a measure to give state employees an across-the-board $1,500 pay raise.
“It’s been about 14 years since workers have been given an across the board raise,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll see that (happen).”
Last year, Sykes authored a bill to give all state workers making less than $50,000 a year a $1,500 pay raise, but the measure failed in committee.
The first-term lawmaker has also filed legislation to change replace the current Mississippi flag with the flag designed by Laurin Stennis, to raise unemployment benefits by $40 a week, and to ban the sale of bump stocks, which turn semi-automatic weapons into automatic ones.