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Judge Undecided on Mississippi Election Law



sara counting absentee ballots 2021

GULFPORT, Miss. — A federal judge on Tuesday appeared undecided over whether he should strike down a Mississippi election law that allows officials to process mail-in absentee ballots up to five days after an election. U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola in Gulfport heard arguments from attorneys representing two political parties, a state agency, and a veterans advocacy organization over whether the state law conflicts with federal election law.

The state Libertarian Party, the state and national Republican parties, and a county election commissioner are the plaintiffs. They argue the state law conflicts with federal election statutes because only Congress should set federal election schedules. Secretary of State Michael Watson’s office, which administers elections, is the defendant. His office contends the state law does not conflict with federal regulations and that the political parties have not shown that it diminishes their chances of winning an election.

The hearing centered on the legal definition of Election Day, why America has an Election Day, and how much leeway states have in administering federal elections. “The real dispute here is over the meaning of Election Day,” said Conor Woodfin, an attorney representing the Republican Party plaintiffs. The state law in question is a 2020 state law passed by the Legislature amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It allows local election workers to process mail-in absentee ballots for up to five days after an election if the ballots were postmarked by Election Day.

Arguments Presented

Woodfin and Russell Nobile, representing the Libertarian Party, argue that Election Day ends when officials receive the last ballot. They claim the state law violates federal law because it extends the election date. Special Assistant Attorney General Rex Shannon III, representing Watson, argued Election Day ends when voters cast their ballots in the mail. Since the law requires voters to mail absentee ballots by Election Day, the law is not extending the election. “Once a voter deposits a ballot in the mail, that vote has been irretrievably cast,” Shannon said.

A critical issue that could determine the case’s outcome is whether the plaintiffs have legal standing to bring the suit. The litigation comes at a time when voter confidence in elections is at an all-time low and when candidates have started to dispute election results more frequently. The state Senate passed a bill to repeal the law earlier this year, but it died in the state House. Senate Elections Chairman Jeremy England, R-Vancleave, said it was time to repeal the five-day window because voters disliked that election workers received ballots after an election.

Judge’s Remarks and Next Steps

Guirola asked Shannon “out of curiosity” why the bill failed during the legislative process. Shannon said he couldn’t answer because he represents Watson’s office, not the Legislature. “Well, my curiosity will remain unquenched,” Guirola responded. Chris Dodge, an attorney for Vet Voice, said several states have post-Election Day ballot receipt laws to accommodate voters. “These laws are not the novelties these plaintiffs assert they are,” Dodge said.

Guirola did not rule on any motions on Tuesday. He said he wanted to review relevant case law and reflect on the arguments. “This is an important case, and I have to get it right,” Guirola said. After Guirola’s ruling, an aggrieved party could appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. A prompt resolution before November’s presidential and congressional election is vital. Different rulings from the district and appellate courts could lead to voter confusion.

Mississippians can request an absentee ballot application starting September 6. The earliest day to vote by absentee is September 23, according to the secretary of state’s elections calendar.

Mississippi Today first published this article. It is published here under a Creative Commons license.

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