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Watson: Discussions ongoing on how best to prepare for November election

During these unprecedented times, I am grateful for all of the essential workers and volunteers who are providing access to food, healthcare, and supplies. The COVID-19 global pandemic has forced us to provide vital services and take care of those in need using very limited resources. As expected, Mississippians have risen to the challenge.

While we hope to have this in our rearview mirror before the upcoming elections, I realize we must act now. Your right to vote should not be among the pandemic’s victims. Here at the Secretary of State’s Office, we do not believe voters should have to choose between casting a ballot and risking their own health. Therefore, we have put together a plan to safeguard the integrity and legitimacy of our elections while protecting our citizens. Crises often provoke extreme reactions, and as your chief elections officer, I assure you that while facing these issues with an open mind, we will not let this pandemic be used as an open door for expanded government control or fraud.

Our team is consulting with election commissioners and circuit clerks across the state as we continue to develop a plan that maintains the integrity of our elections focuses on the well-being of our citizens and upholds Mississippi’s steadfast conservative values.

Prior to election day, we will implement additional poll worker training regarding proper sanitation and social distancing, and we will work to offer the full training course online. Due to the expected need for more poll workers, we are asking election commissioners to fully utilize the current student internship program, and we are looking into potential partnerships with colleges and universities to incentivize students to work on election day.

A key component of our plan is urging the legislature to adopt an additional absentee excuse to allow Mississippians to absentee vote in person when they are subject to a state of emergency declared by the governor or president. Authorizing voters to vote in-person absentee when under a state of emergency will lead to our office partnering even closer with circuit clerks to possibly expand curbside absentee voting to help limit the spread of COVID-19 on election day. Additionally, counties will be able to hire temporary staff to meet the increased demand by using funds from the CARES Act. The supplemental federal funding supports state and local election officials by offsetting some of the increased costs of administering elections during the pandemic. 

I want Mississippians to understand this is not a ploy to implement early voting, but a temporary way to permit those who are most at risk of contracting COVID-19 a safe opportunity to exercise their right to vote.

Election day itself will look a little different than usual, but I assure you the security of your vote and your wellness are our top priorities. We may consider temporary outdoor facilities if traditional polling locations are not available. By voting in an open-air environment, vulnerable populations would be safer, and it would ensure compliance with proper social distancing measures. Some of these measures include safe capacity limits, “one-in, one-out” lines, cleaning machines between each use, disposable marking devices for touch screens, and providing readily available sanitizing stations. We also plan to make sure all poll workers have the necessary personal protective equipment and are in communication with our universities and private businesses about partnering to provide these resources.

While the state may be tightening its belt on many non-essential operations, enforcement of election law is not one of them. We realize the greatest vulnerability to our electoral system would be adopting policies such as universal vote by mail (VBM) and no-excuse early voting, which could leave us vulnerable to instances of voter fraud such as forgery and ballot harvesting. With the plan we have put forth, the safeguards in place to protect against fraud will remain intact. The attorney general has confirmed any instance of voter fraud, no matter how big or how small, will be prosecuted to the maximum extent allowed by law.

As Mississippians, we hold ourselves to the solemn truth that life is precious and worth protecting. This virus threatens us all, but our office is going the extra mile to ensure you can cast your vote without harm. Due to the vast amount of misinformation, we will be sending out detailed postcards highlighting changes made due to COVID-19, such as how and where to vote. As we approach the November election, I encourage all Mississippians to study the candidates, stay in tune with information from our office, and, most importantly, stay healthy.

 

Michael Watson is Mississippi’s Secretary of State.

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