What we witnessed on Election Day was both historic and unnerving. The crowds of people voting in-person, coupled with the overwhelming amount of absentee ballots prove Mississippi voters believe in our democracy.
Lawmakers in the Mississippi legislature are advancing bills (HB 4 and SB 2588) that would remove thousands of registered voters from the state’s voting roles. The bills are similarly crafted to cancel Mississippians' voter registration when someone has skipped voting in consecutive years, and then fails to respond to a letter asking them to confirm where they live.
This sets up a “use it or lose it” proposition that ultimately causes a person to be stripped from the voting rolls because of that person’s failure to vote. Election officials are rightfully tasked with keeping voter registration records up to date by deleting individuals that have passed away, are incarcerated, or moved to another jurisdiction.
Choosing not to vote should not be on that list.
Mississippi lawmakers supporting these purging bills point to Ohio to justify the legislation.
Yes, in 2016, the Ohio legislature passed a law that allowed their Secretary of State to strip Ohioans from the voter rolls if they failed to vote in consecutive elections, and consequently failed to respond to a notice sent to them via mail.
Yes, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, held that states could legally purge voters if they fail to respond to the mailed notice and choose to not vote for 4 years.
And yes, this Ohio purging law has created a mess!
It’s a mess that even the current Republican Ohio Secretary of State, Frank LaRose, acknowledges. “The system we have in place right now is prone to error — human error, vendor error,” LaRose said. “It’s unacceptably messy.”
In 2019, LaRose inherited a list of 235,000 Ohioans set to be purged. Instead of blindly canceling the registration of nearly a quarter million voters, LaRose chose to work with voting rights groups to search the list for irregularities.
Those organizations found over 40,000 names were wrongly placed on the purge list due to software or human error. Thankfully, LaRose chose to scrutinize the list. Otherwise, a software glitch would have stopped thousands of eligible voters from voting.
Ohio election officials, voting rights groups and journalists continue to find the names of eligible, active voters on purge lists.
Due to continued problems within the purging process, LaRose has also been forced to put in place safeguards to protect voters. One safety net enacted allows voters that have been purged within the past eight years to cast provisional ballots on Election Day.
It’s clear that if Mississippi lawmakers want to ensure accurate voter rolls, they should avoid adopting the same mess of a purging process that Ohio implemented in 2016.
Election officials can maintain accurate voter rolls by utilizing the National Change of Address System provided by the U.S. Postal Service to find voters that have moved out of the state. Officials can also work closely with the Mississippi State Department of Health to identify deceased voters.
Mississippi can also move towards a more uniform system by allowing the Department of Public Safety and Secretary of State to implement an opt-out voter registration system for Mississippians applying for or renewing their driver’s license.
Ironically, to clean up their mess, Ohio Republicans are looking at adopting these same reforms.
More than any state, Mississippi should jealously guard her citizen’s right to vote. Our state should never adopt a voting policy that causes more harm than good. The process proposed in HB 4 and SB 2588 will wrongly cancel the voter registrations of thousands of Mississippians. It is well established under our Constitution that no one should be penalized for not voting. Yet, when you untangle the mess of a purging process found in these bills, you end up with a system that punishes voters that skip elections.