JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi law does not allow absentee voting by all people who have health conditions that might make them vulnerable to COVID-19, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.
A majority of justices reversed a Sept. 2 decision by Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Owens, saying she too broadly interpreted some changes that legislators made to state law this year.
“Having a preexisting condition that puts a voter at a higher risk does not automatically create a temporary disability for absentee-voting purposes,” justices wrote.
The Mississippi decision contrasts with one handed down Wednesday in a neighboring state, where a federal judge ruled that Louisiana must allow mail-in voting for people with conditions that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed as making people more vulnerable to COVID-19, their caretakers and three other groups.
Mississippi does not allow widespread early voting. Instead, state law says absentee voting is available to anyone 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 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.”
People with health conditions including lupus and asthma filed a lawsuit Aug. 11 in Hinds County Chancery Court. Their attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the Mississippi Center for Justice argued that any voter with a preexisting condition should be able to vote absentee because the state health officer, who is a physician, has advised that people with such conditions should avoid large public gatherings. The attorneys said such voters should not need individual quarantine orders from another physician, and Owens agreed.
Secretary of State Michael Watson, a Republican, appealed Owens’ order to the state Supreme Court.
Attorneys for Watson wrote in the appeal that the state law's “narrow absentee excuse does not stretch to voters without an underlying ‘physical disability’ just because they have a fear of contracting COVID-19 at the polls, or the voters are voluntarily following public health guidance.”
Other groups filed a similar lawsuit Aug. 27 in federal court, arguing that Mississippi's absentee voting restrictions put people at risk during the coronavirus pandemic. They filed additional papers Thursday asking a judge to block two requirements — that a voter have absentee ballot forms notarized and that people have an excuse to vote absentee, such as being out of town on Election Day. Waiving the excuse would open absentee voting to many more people.