Mississippi erases some restrictions on absentee voting help for people with disabilities

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi is revising the restrictions it put in place last year on who can provide absentee voting assistance to people who have disabilities or cannot read or write — restrictions that were blocked by a federal judge before ultimately being altered by lawmakers.

An updated state law took effect Monday, changing one that the GOP-controlled Legislature passed and Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed in 2023.

“This legislative change is a monumental step forward for voting rights in Mississippi, ensuring that every citizen’s voice is heard and respected," Greta Kemp Martin, litigation director for Disability Rights Mississippi, said in a statement Monday.

Disability Rights Mississippi, the League of Women Voters of Mississippi and three voters sued the state in 2023, challenging the short list of people who could “collect and transmit” an absentee ballot. The list included employees of the U.S. Postal Service or other mail carriers such as FedEx or UPS, and any “family member, household member or caregiver of the person to whom the ballot was mailed.” A violation would have been punishable by up to a year in jail, a $3,000 fine or both.

U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate blocked the law from taking effect last year. He wrote that it violated the federal Voting Rights Act, which says any voter who is blind, disabled or unable to read or write may receive assistance “by a person of the voter’s choice,” other than their employer or union.

The new version of the Mississippi law reflects that portion of the Voting Rights Act. It also defines who is considered a caregiver, a family member or a member of a voter's household. Democratic lawmakers who opposed the 2023 law said it was vague and could hurt candidates, campaign workers, nursing home employees or others who make good-faith efforts to help people obtain and mail absentee ballots.

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. When Reeves signed Mississippi’s law in 2023, he said it was to prevent “ballot harvesting,” a pejorative term for dropping off completed ballots for other people.

One of the residents who sued the state, Mamie Cunningham, is director of a community organizing group and involved with Black Voters Matter in northeast Mississippi.

“Many people with disabilities in rural communities would not vote if they did not have assistance," Cunningham said in a statement Monday. “In Mississippi, voting by absentee ballot is an overwhelming process even for people without disabilities.”

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