Mississippi absentee ballot law harms voters with disabilities, lawsuit says

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi’s new restrictions on absentee ballots could disfranchise voters who have disabilities by preventing them from receiving help from people they trust, according to a lawsuit that seeks to block the restrictions.

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The law — set to take effect July 1 — sets a short list of people who can “collect and transmit” an absentee ballot. The list includes employees of the US Postal Service or other mail carriers, plus any “family member, household member or caregiver” of the person receiving an absentee ballot.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday on behalf of Disability Rights Mississippi, the League of Women Voters of Mississippi and three residents of the north Mississippi city of Okolona. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, Disability Rights Mississippi, Mississippi Center for Justice and Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Every voter in the state of Mississippi has the right to participate in their democracy,” ACLU staff attorney Ming Cheung said in a statement. “Voting in Mississippi is extraordinarily difficult, and many voters experiencing disabilities and other challenges must rely on their friends and community members for assistance with absentee voting.”

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One of the plaintiffs is William Earl Whitley, a 78-year-old Army veteran whose legs were amputated and who has relied on the other two Okolona plaintiffs, who are not his relatives, to help him with the absentee voting process.

“Mr. Whitley wishes to continue to have them assist him but he does not want to put them at risk of facing criminal penalties,” the lawsuit said.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said when he signed the new law that it would ban political operations from collecting and handling large numbers of ballots. Reeves described the practice as “ballot harvesting,” a pejorative term for dropping off completed ballots for other people.

Opponents said the new restrictions could hurt candidates, campaign workers, nursing home employees or others who make good-faith efforts to help people obtain and mail absentee ballots.

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The federal Voting Rights Act guarantees that people who require help in voting because of a disability, blindness or inability to read or write can receive assistance “by a person of the voter’s choice,” the lawsuit said, and the only exception is that the help cannot come from “the voter’s employer or agent of that employer or officer or agent of the voter’s union.”

“Voting — and receiving assistance with voting due to disability, blindness, or illiteracy — is a highly personal act,” the lawsuit said. “And under federal law, voters cannot be denied their right to entrust a ballot to a person of their choice.”

Unlike some states that allow widespread use of voting by mail, Mississippi has restricted the reasons people may vote absentees. The absentee ballots are available — by mail or for early, in-person voting — to Mississippi voters who are 65 or older; any voter with a temporary or permanent physical disability, or any voter who is that person’s caretaker; or any voter who will be away from their home county on election day, including college students.

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Mississippi has elections this year for governor and other statewide and regional offices, legislative seats and county offices. Party primaries are Aug. 8, and the general election is Nov. 7.

Republican-led states have tightened rules on voting by mail since the 2020 presidential election, in part because of the false narrative of widespread fraud in that race.

Secretary of State Michael Watson, a Republican, wrote in an opinion column in early May that the absentee ballot restrictions are part of an “election integrity package.”

“Knowing the work that goes into Election Day is much more than just a 24-hour day, we thoroughly reviewed our absentee voting process and worked to close loopholes,” Watson wrote. “Anyone who now fraudulently requests an absentee ballot application for another person can be convicted of voter fraud.”

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