The following op-ed was written and submitted by Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson
Election reform remains a significant talking point in the wake of one of the most engaging election cycles in U.S. history. The obstacles of 2020 forced numerous election procedures and policies into the national spotlight, prompting states across the country to take a closer look at their overall election system. While no election is perfect, Mississippians can take pride in knowing we conducted a clean, safe, and fair 2020 General Election. We saw the highest voter turnout in state history and celebrated more than 113,000 newly registered voters. This success is a testament to hardworking personnel across the state and our well-conceived elections process. However, there is always room for improvement, so now is the time to look to the future.
Quality elections begin with clean and accurate voter rolls. The implementation of online voter registration (OVR) is an initiative growing in popularity. As of right now, a paper application is the only way to register to vote in Mississippi. A local election official or Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) employee inputs the information into an online system by hand—opening the door for numerous user errors and potential voter fraud. OVR would take out the middleman and allow legal and qualified individuals to input their information into a safe and secure online system that would easily transfer data to our Statewide Elections Management System (SEMS). Security measures, such as enhanced signature verification, voting in person for the first time after registering online, and voter I.D. laws, would help ensure only eligible Mississippians register to vote. The data available from the 40 or more states already utilizing some form of OVR prove its security, efficiency, and transparency.
Voter rolls are the foundation of any election system. Before we can begin discussions of altering voting options, we must ensure our foundation is accurate and trustworthy. Local election officials are required to meet regularly to update information and remove the names of all ineligible voters. Historically, Mississippi voter rolls show counties with an average of 75-80% of their voting-age population as active voters. As of February 2021, SEMS data shows 34 counties in the 90% range, which is an arguably questionable percentage for some regions, and seven counties with more than 100%, which is factually incorrect. Inflated voter rolls can lead to fraudulent voting, which dilutes legally cast votes. It also leads to wasted taxpayer dollars as voter rolls are used to determine election resources, such as paper ballots, voting machines, and postage and letters regarding jury duty, among other expenses.
Members of our state legislature demonstrated their understanding of this issue by proposing legislation (Senate Bill 2588 and House Bill 4) to help maintain accurate voter rolls. Under this proposed legislation, Election Commissioners would send out a notice to any voter who did not vote in the previous three years, which must include two federal general elections. Once the voter receives the notice, he/she would have to do one of the following things to remain on the voter rolls: 1.) respond to the notice stating his/her address is correct, 2.) vote once in the four years following, or 3.) update his/her voter registration information to reflect a new address, which can easily be done in-person at the local Circuit Clerk’s Office—or online at www.yallvote.ms. If the voter fails to respond in any way, the voter is moved to “purged status” on the voter rolls with the option of re-registering at any time. Many will argue this method of enforcement is too aggressive, but if you compare it to our current process, the changes are minimal, yet necessary, to the integrity of our overall election system. Most importantly, who can argue against having accurate voter rolls?
Proof of citizenship is another process that could strengthen election security. Senate Bill 2016 and House Bill 586 would authorize election officials to compare the SEMS information with other official government databases to ensure only U.S. citizens residing in Mississippi are registered to vote in our state. This bill, if it becomes law, will replace a current law on the books that has drawn a federal lawsuit. Our approach is both constitutional and effective, as witnessed by the same system being used in Tennessee.
Moving forward, the goal for every election official, whether statewide or local, should be similar. Mississippians deserve easy and accessible voter registration options, clean and accurate voter rolls, enhanced security measures that protect the integrity of each vote, and advanced transparency of our overall elections process.