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Disability advocates are asking a court to halt a Mississippi law on ballot assistance

A poll worker in Brandon, Miss., right, hands an "I Voted" sticker to a person who filled out a ballot on Nov. 8, 2022.
Rogelio V. Solis
/
AP
A poll worker in Brandon, Miss., right, hands an "I Voted" sticker to a person who filled out a ballot on Nov. 8, 2022.

Disability and voting rights advocates are asking a federal court to block a measure in Mississippi, set to go into effect next week, that creates new restrictions for people who need assistance voting by mail.

Senate Bill 2358 limits who can collect and transmit a ballot that was mailed to someone else. In Mississippi, the state's absentee-by-mail voting program is for limited groups of voters — people out of town on Election Day, people 65 or older and people with a temporary or permanent physical disability.

Under the new law, which goes into effect July 1, only election officials, postal workers, a family member or household member or a caregiver can assist these voters in mailing back their ballot.

Violating these new restrictions is punishable by imprisonment of up to one year in county jail and/or a fine of up to $3,000.

Supporters of the Mississippi law say it's aimed at preventing ballot harvesting, which is when someone collects and returns other people's ballots.

Many Republicans have argued this practice leads to vote stealing and fraud, which studies have found are extremely rare in United States elections.

Mississippi GOP Gov. Tate Reeves, who signed the bill into law earlier this year, said ina video address that across the country "bad actors have used ballot harvesting to take advantage of elderly and vulnerable voters" in an effort to "circumvent" the democratic process.

"Senate Bill 2358 is now law and Mississippi's elections are safer because of it," Reeves said.

The bill's sponsor, Republican state Sen. Jeff Tate, did not reply to a request for comment.

In recent years, Republicans have decried "ballot harvesting"

A similar bill in Alabama that would crack down on absentee ballot assistance passed the state House this year, but failed to get a final vote in the Senate.

For several years, Republicans have pushed back against ballot collection in certain instances, and that rhetoric ramped up during the pandemic ahead of the 2020 election, due in large part to misinformation shared by former President Donald Trump.

More recently, though, some Republicans, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have said the party needs to embrace "ballot harvesting where legal."

Ahmed Soussi, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told NPR that legislation similar to Mississippi's has passed in other states in the South, and around the country. He said these kinds of restrictions are rooted in misinformation and create barriers for voters who need help casting mail ballots.

"Voter assistance does not mean voter fraud or people trying to come in and change votes," Soussi said. "We want to make sure everyone is able to vote and some people need assistance."

Plaintiffs express confidence the law will be struck down

Last month, a voter who requires assistance returning their ballot, two Mississippians who have provided voting assistance to their friends and neighbors — as well as Disability Rights Mississippi and the League of Women Voters of Mississippi — sued the state in federal court, arguing the new law violates federal voting protections for people with disabilities.

"Recognizing that voters with disabilities and other challenges are disproportionately denied access to voting," plaintiffs say in their legal challenge, "Congress has specifically amended the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ensure that people who require assistance in voting due to disability, blindness, or inability to read or write can receive assistance from someone they trust."

Soussi said Mississippi's law violates a voter's right to choose who helps them cast a ballot.

"Some people don't have a family member or household member or caregiver close by," he said. "Sometimes people rely on their neighbor. Sometimes they rely on a friend."

State officials who are defendants in this case wrote in a filing that SB 2358 doesn't run afoul of federal protections for voters with disabilities. They also argue that the state has a protected interest in safeguarding its elections.

"The Supreme Court has been clear that a state has a compelling interest in preserving the integrity of its election process," defendants argued. "S.B. 2358 inherently reflects this compelling interest by prohibiting ballot harvesting. And the State is harmed any time a state law is enjoined by a federal court on behalf of a handful of plaintiffs. This is particularly true with respect to protecting the integrity of elections in Mississippi."

Soussi said across the country federal courts have struck down a slew of similar laws that create new barriers for voters who need assistance. Last year, a federal judge in Texas struck down similar limits in that state. A similarruling was issued for a Wisconsin law that same year.

"The courts have shown little tolerance of any narrowing of [this] right, which does give us confidence," Soussi said.

Plaintiffs in this case are asking the court to block the law ahead of the state's August primary election. Mail ballots for that election are expected to go out as early as late July.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.