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Lawsuit seeks clarity on Mississippi voting amid COVID-19

JACKSON (AP) — A new lawsuit says Mississippi’s absentee voting law is confusing and could be applied inconsistently during the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Hinds County Chancery Court. It asks a judge to issue a statewide declaration that would allow absentee voting by people with health conditions that could put them in extra danger because of the highly contagious virus.

Plaintiffs include people who have had cancer or who have other conditions, including lupus and asthma.

The lawsuit says the state Health Department recommends that all people avoid “large social gatherings and community events” and that people who have chronic conditions or are in poor health should “stay home as much as possible.”

“In deciding whether to attend any public gathering, particularly a polling place on election day, voters are required to consider, and are permitted to follow, public health guidance,” the lawsuit says. “They have the right to follow that guidance without surrendering the right to vote.”

Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the Mississippi Center for Justice filed the suit against Secretary of State Michael Watson, who is the state’s top elections officer, and against circuit clerks in Hinds and Rankin counties, who oversee elections in those places. The lawsuit was filed in Hinds County because it’s home to the seat of state government.

Mississippi does not allow widespread early voting. Instead, state law says absentee voting is available to anyone who is 65 or older, or for voters of any age who are permanently disabled or will be out of their home county on election day. People who have to work on election day when the polls are open also are allowed to vote absentee.

Legislators tweaked the law this year with provisions that expire at the end of 2020. Those allow absentee voting by someone with a temporary or permanent disability that may include “a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19” or by a person who is “caring for a dependent that is under a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19.”

The lawsuit notes that Watson said in news release in May that he and his office “do not believe voters should have to choose between casting a ballot and risking their own health.” But it also points out that Watson told legislators in June that local election officials are smart enough to figure out which people should be given mail-in absentee ballots. Watson made both statements before legislators made the temporary change to the law.

The secretary of state’s office said in a statement Wednesday that it has received a copy of the lawsuit.

“Our team is in the process of reviewing it with legal counsel,” the statement said. “We have no comment at this time.”