GOP race for Mississippi secretary of state grows pointed

Published 10:55 am Tuesday, July 23, 2019

(AP) — The contest between two candidates seeking the Republican nomination for Mississippi secretary of state has become one of the most pointed among 2019’s primary elections, while the former mayor of Hattiesburg faces a novice politician for the Democratic nomination.

Voters in both major parties choose their nominees on Aug. 6. State Sen. Michael Watson and Public Service Commissioner Sam Britton are running as Republicans, while former Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree and Lexington resident Maryra Hodges Hunt are running as Democrats.

The candidates offer different visions for the office. Britton said he would seek to expand his role in promoting economic growth. Watson wants the secretary of state to take over issuing driver’s licenses, citing clogged offices, and wants to comb Mississippi’s voter rolls, warning of a threat that noncitizens could vote. DuPree wants to push an early voting period, saying people should be able to vote before election day without an excuse. Hunt wants elections conducted on paper ballots statewide.

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Britton and Watson have been trading charges in an increasingly edgy race. Britton accuses Watson of insufficient support for President Donald Trump, citing Watson’s support for Ted Cruz during the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Watson dismisses the charges as “ridiculous” noting he attended the Republican National Convention later that year supporting Trump.

“A lot of folks out there probably weren’t pro-Trump to start with,” Watson said.

In turn, Watson questions Britton’s qualifications for the office, noting Britton’s flub in a joint radio appearance where Britton said Mississippi didn’t have voter identification, when the secretary of state has overseen requiring voters to show ID since 2014. Watson also questions Britton’s Republican credentials after a 2003 legislative bid as a Democrat and Britton’s donations to former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

Britton wants to use the office’s role in registering and regulating businesses to influence economic growth, pushing the envelope in an area where outgoing Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann sought to expand his influence. Britton envisions yearly reports on the economy and policy options. “I believe you actually can change the future of where the state can go,” he said.

Watson says that plan “sounds more like the secretary of commerce than the secretary of state.” But he too envisions a big expansion, taking over driver’s licensing. Secretaries of state in a handful of states license drivers, and Watson, like many lawmakers, said he’s been deluged with complaints about waits at Department of Public Safety-run licensing offices.

“It’s a problem I see in government and it’s something I’d like to fix,” said Watson, adding he favors privatizing part of the operation.

Britton said law enforcement needs to maintain control of licensing. “Why don’t we have someone try to fix this problem where it’s at?” he asked.

Watson also promises a crackdown on the possibility of noncitizens on voting rolls, though he couldn’t quantify the size of any suspected problem.

“Different states are trying to get illegal immigrants off the voting rolls,” Watson said, although there have been persistent questions in other states about whether purges also capture citizens. Watson pledges that proving citizenship and staying registered is “not going to be a tough burden.”

Britton said he would be “totally vigilant” to prevent noncitizen voting, but saw “no evidence that we have a significant problem with that.”

On the Democratic side, DuPree wants to create a two-week-long early voting period for those casting ballots in person at their local courthouse. Now, Mississippians can only vote absentee if they state why they can’t vote on election day.

“My goal would be to try to increase access and participation, said DuPree, who was the first African American Democratic nominee for governor in 2011. “Then you will get the true will and true desire of the electorate.”

DuPree favors other ways to increase participation, including registering voters online and at the polls on election day, and holding state elections on the day the president is elected, when turnout is usually highest.

Hunt said she’s running for office to encourage faith in voting.

“The main thing is to let people know their vote does count,” she said. “A lot of young people think their vote doesn’t count.”

Hunt said she favors all counties returning to paper ballot voting, saying too many voters need assistance with touch screen machines.

Watson has been endorsed by Gov. Phil Bryant, who says Bryant encouraged him to consider the statewide office several years ago. As of July 1, Watson had raised $269,000 this year, had spent $198,000, and had $414,000 on hand, thanks to prior fundraising. Britton had raised $612,000, spent $437,000 and had $174,000 on hand.

Dupree had raised $39,000 as of July 1 and spent $41,000, listing a $2,000 deficit. Hunt reported no contributions or spending.