Across Mississippi, local election officials are tasked with making the voting process as safe as possible during a pandemic. With a lack of action at the state level and DeSoto County’s high voter turnout, this has become a uniquely daunting task for local election officials.
Mississippi is the only state that is not providing all citizens with an alternative to voting in-person on Election Day. All other states accommodate those worried about potential transmission of COVID-19 in crowded polling locations.
Lawmakers only expanded absentee voting for those who are in a physician-ordered quarantine or are taking care of someone who is. Multiple lawsuits attempted to get the judiciary to act where the Legislature would not, but all have failed.
DeSoto County averages a voter turnout rate in election years higher than state and national levels, according to election records. It has also maintained the second highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state for most of the pandemic. These things together mean the risks of contracting the virus through in-person voting are more pronounced here than in other counties.
Still, election officials remain confident in DeSoto County’s voting system.
“DeSoto County has always been a leader to me in elections,” said District 3 Election Commissioner Danny Klein.
Klein’s name will not be on the ballot this year. After 17 years in office, this election will be the last Klein has a hand in managing. He said all polling locations across the county will have enough equipment and people to handle the risks
To mitigate the risks for poll workers, they will be supplied with PPE and separated from voters by glass barriers.
Many of the poll workers across the county will be first-time volunteers who are replacing seasoned poll-workers who bowed out this year. According to Klein, the average age of a poll worker in DeSoto County is around 72 years old, an age group that is especially vulnerable to serious COVID-19 complications. Volunteers have lowered this average to between 45-50.
Poll worker training typically only takes six days in DeSoto County, one for each district. This year, the election commission spread it across a five-week period to prevent virus spread among their new recruits.
Enough cleaning supplies have also been purchased for all precincts to regularly sanitize and keep voter traffic moving. Still, the newly adopted safety measures will be in place alongside one glowing omission. Secretary of State Michael Watson has said there will be no state mask mandate in place at the polls on Election Day.
“We’re strongly requesting that they wear a mask inside of the voting place, but if they choose not to, that’s not going to stop them from voting,” Klein said.
County election officials are also expecting a massive increase in absentee voting this year.
“In 2016, we had over 6,000 absentees. That’s presidential, that’s normal. And this year we anticipate 12,000 or higher because of COVID-19,” Klein said.
This increase would almost assuredly be much higher if Mississippi did not have some of the most restrictive early voting laws in the nation. You can vote absentee in-person or by mail in Mississippi only if you are over the age of 65, disabled or will be out of your county on Election Day.
Voting absentee by mail is also a lengthier and more expensive process in Mississippi. The state requires you to request a ballot application and then a ballot from the Circuit Clerk, both of which have to be notarized.
An unseen level of mail-in voting is happening across the country, and this has caused some concern over if mail carriers are equipped to deal with the surge. Many are worried that if they vote by mail, their ballot will be delivered late or not at all. USPS officials have maintained that it can still fulfill its major role in the election process.
“The Postal Service is fully committed and actively working to handle the anticipated increase in Election Mail volume over the coming weeks,” a USPS spokesperson said in a statement. “The anticipated volume will still be less than our holiday season volume which we successfully deliver every year. We have allocated additional resources including overtime, extra transportation, expanded processing procedures, extra collection trips, and extra deliveries to ensure Election Mail, including ballots, move quickly and efficiently through our system to its intended destination.”