Legislature may direct funds to help with November election

By BY STEVE WILSON FOR THE E-T,

The Mississippi Legislature might be appropriating more COVID-19 related federal funds to help counties deal with pandemic-related costs for the November 3 election.

The House and Senate Election committees held a joint hearing Wednesday and heard from Secretary of State Michael Watson and George County circuit clerk Chad Welford.

Both talked about how curbside voting would work in the state’s 82 counties and how the Legislature needs to pass legislation that would allow those voting absentee an additional excuse to allow voting in person at a courthouse during a state of emergency since there will be likely be more absentee votes cast on Election Day than in past years.

“I think we’re going to be faced with challenges and we’re going to have to deal with this here on out,” Welford said to the committee.

House Bill 297, which was sponsored by state Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, would allow absentee votes to be cast electronically in the registrar’s office or by mail. Welford said most of the circuit clerks support this legislation.

Welford told the committee that upgrading to touch screen systems like the Election Systems and Software DS200 machines would cost his county about $200,000. He said these machines are ideal for use in a pandemic since the voter fills out a ballot with a pen at a station and the ballot is fed into the machine without them having to touch the screen.

When asked about how to prevent absentee voters from casting a second ballot on Election Day, Welford said that his office prints the poll books (which contain the names of all registered voters in the county) and those voters who cast ballots absentee are pre-marked on the printout. This informs poll workers that a voter has already cast an absentee ballot.

He also said that curbside voting has already happened in past elections, especially with the disabled voters who can't get out of their car to walk to the polling place.

Watson told the committee members that his office will be using the $4.7 million in federal funds to help circuit clerk offices hire more poll workers, buy cleaning supplies to clean machines after each vote and provide poll workers with protective equipment such as masks, face shields and gloves.

This money was distributed to secretary of state offices nationwide from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that was passed in March by Congress.

“We’re prepared,” Watson told the committee. “I want you to know that on Election Day, the precincts will be safe. There will be hand sanitizing stations going in and going out, our poll managers and workers will have protective equipment on, we’ve thought about everything.”

He even said his office has had Zoom meeting with officials in Israel, South Korea and Taiwan on what steps they took to protect voters during the pandemic.

He also said that he’s heard from some circuit clerks that a lot of poll workers won’t work this year’s election because of the coronavirus and he wants counties to have more funds appropriated from the $950 million in CARES Act fund that haven’t been allocated to allow them to hire more temporary workers.

Mississippi received $1.25 billion, of which more than $300 million is already been appropriated to help small business owners affected by the economic shutdown.

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