Lawmakers pass ‘voter purge’ bill that could keep some Mississippians from voting

Published 2:00 pm Thursday, March 30, 2023

The Republican leadership of the Mississippi Legislature has for years attempted to make it easier to remove voters from the election rolls.

They finally succeeded with legislation that passed both chambers on Tuesday and now needs the signature of Gov. Tate Reeves to become law. The governor is expected to sign the bill, which authorizes Secretary of State Michael Watson to perform election audits throughout the state.

The bill, opposed by all Black members of the House and Senate and by most Democrats, does not make the process to remove voters from the rolls as easy as Republican leaders first proposed this session and have attempted to do in past sessions.

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Under the proposal, people who do not vote in one of two presidential elections in a four-year period or in any other election between those national elections would be mailed a card asking them to confirm they still live at the same address. If they do not respond to that card, they would be required to vote affidavit in the next election.

People who vote by affidavit — with their vote accepted as still residing in the voting district — would be considered a voter in good standing. But if they do not return the card or take no voter-related action over a period of two federal elections they would be removed from the registered voter list.

Republicans said the legislation is needed to ensure accurate voter registration lists.

“What we want to do is clean up the voter rolls,” said Senate Election Chair Jeff Tate, R-Meridian, of the proposal. “When we have people on the rolls by name only and they are not actually living there, that is a vessel for fraud. And yes, there is voter fraud. What this does is give our local election officials another tool to clean up their rolls.”

Democrats said people have a right to decide not to vote and should not face the possibility of being removed from the rolls by making that choice.

“The only thing this person has done is not vote. We’re saying you can’t be left alone to mind your own business,” said Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez.

During debate in the House, Rep. Brent Powell, R-Brandon, told members that the confirmation card sent to people would be by certified mail, which would ensure that the intended recipient of the confirmation card received it.

Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said, “You can become intoxicated at the podium because you are handling a bill and want to see it pass and you can offer and see things not in the bill. There are no requirements that certified mail be sent out … Voting is not a privilege in this country. It is a right. It is a right that brought death and pain and suffering to those who did not have this right.”

There is no reference in the legislation saying the confirmation cards should be sent via certified mail.

At any rate, Democrats say the legislation is part of a package of efforts to make it more difficult to vote. Earlier this session the Legislature passed and the governor signed into law a bill that would prohibit the so-called “harvesting” of ballots.

The Republican leadership said the bill prohibits people from obtaining and submitting multiple absentee ballots for the elderly and for others who are allowed a mail-in ballot in Mississippi. They said there are people who gather multiple ballots for people who are eligible to vote by mail and that can be a vehicle for voter fraud.

Democrats said the new law makes it more difficult for people to help the elderly and disabled vote by mail.

While bills are being passed that some say make it more difficult to vote, Mississippi is one of only four states not having some version of no excuse early voting.

“I appreciate the institution of voting on Election Day,” Tate said.

by Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender