/How safe is voting in person in Mississippi

How safe is voting in person in Mississippi

Mississippi Today spoke to a 59-year old Ocean Springs voter who said she plans to vote absentee. She told her local election officials that she will be out of town on Election Day. This will be a fabrication. The voter asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation by election officials. She has an auto-immune condition that could cause her more complications if she contracted COVID-19. She doesn’t believe her disability would allow her to vote early. She said that she was nervous about voting and that the only way to get around it is to lie and vote absentee. “… I find it very concerning that the US did not expand early voting in Mississippi during the pandemic. There are very few reasons someone can vote early. The secretary of state’s office says that there is no reason to fear of contracting COVID-19, regardless of voter’s risk level. However, people with symptoms can still vote curbside. READ MORE: Mississippi is not allowed to hold early voting during a pandemic. Many Mississippians are concerned about the strict voting requirements in Mississippi and loose coronavirus precautions within many counties. They wonder if voting in person on Election Day might be dangerous, as state officials try to reduce another spike in cases. Numerous public health officials say that voting in person is safe, but there is a slight risk. Experts compare the risk to grocery shopping, which is a tight, crowded space with limited airflow. However, their assessment includes widespread masking. About three quarters of Mississippians reported that they had masking done by mid-October. However, masks are not required to vote. To better protect voters, some polling places are being pressured to move their booths outside. A poorly ventilated, enclosed space can lead to COVID-19 spreading. The more people in a space, the easier it is for the virus to spread. These are the spaces that many polling stations across the state are. Long lines at the polling station and failure to communicate with others can increase risk. Most cases are traced back to close contact, which is less than six feet. This allows for respiratory droplets to spread through contact. For example, sneezing and coughing can be transmitted from one person to another. According to the state health department, most cases have been traced back to indoor events like after-school activities and parties. After a high-profile back and forth, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially advised that the virus could spread via airborne transmission. This means that it can remain for a short time after the infected person has left. Experts still believe that most spread is by droplet spreading. Based on their interactions with voters, both these spread scenarios indicate that poll workers are more likely to contract the virus than voters. According to state election safety guidelines, poll workers will receive masks, gloves, and face shields. Some voters remain hesitant, especially those who aren’t eligible for early voting and are at higher risk of COVID-19 complications. Mississippi Today spoke to an Ocean Springs voter who said that the confusing instructions given to someone in her position and the constant changing mask mandates confused her. She is primarily concerned about casting her vote and protecting herself and others. After sharp spikes, two Coast counties have been reintroduced to mask mandates. As of Oct. 17, Harrison and Jackson had an average 14% positivity rates — that is, the percentage of positives from all tests — which was among the highest in the state. Mississippi Today was told by multiple voters that they had similar plans to the Ocean Springs woman. They said they would be leaving town while casting absentee votes. She said that she feels there is a trend to restrict voter access. However, we could be more creative in making it easier. “I wish that I had a better option.” Many voters have already made plans to vote next week. But they are concerned about the lack of a statewide mandate for masks and Mississippi’s history of suppressing votes. “On that day we’re likely to have some people with COVID coming out,” stated Germain McConnell (a 47-year old Columbus educator). “Some people with COVID may still come out to vote because they want to, especially if it’s late and can’t do absentee… so it’s a risk to actually vote on that day without requiring that people wear masks.” Anyone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, or is under quarantine, can vote early. However, early voting in person must end Oct. 31 and mail-in ballots should be requested at least two weeks before the election. In reality, people who have been recently diagnosed would not be able to vote on the day. McConnell stated, “It’s not funny, but people will get out and exercise the right to vote anyway. Which I’m happy about.” “But we are putting lives in danger.” McConnell added that it wasn’t just the context of the pandemic making the danger of in-person voter suppression difficult to swallow. For many, the shadows of voter suppression still looms. He said that many people have lost their lives and lost their jobs fighting for the right of voting. “If those people were so brave and willing to do it, then we shouldn’t let fear of some disease stop us from voting and honoring our legacy… but (the State) not making any allowances during a Pandemic — that’s Unconscionable and that’s why I don’t really understand it.” Gov. Tate Reeves removed the state’s mandate to remove masks from in-person voting. Secretary of State Michael Watson, the head of elections in the state has encouraged masking at the polls but won’t require it. Reeves reinstated the mask mandate for nine counties on Oct. 19. This mandate ostensibly required masks at polling sites in these counties until Nov. 11. Seven more counties were added on Sept. 26. Jackson and Oxford still have mask mandates, which voters feel reassures them. Reeves said Monday that even in states with mandates, voters will have the option to wear a mask while they vote. Dobbs is concerned, as he has long advocated widespread masking at the polls. Dobbs stated that the key to this is the critical mass of people who wear masks. So if everyone in the room isn’t wearing a face mask, but you are, your protection level will be lower than if all of us wear one. It would have been possible, or feasible, to require that all polling place attendants wear masks. He also reiterates that in-person voter participation is not a particularly risky activity for COVID-19. He says that masks are essential for overall protection, even though they may not be universal. Dobbs stated that he believes it can be done safely. “As far the politics of how it happens,” Dobbs said. It would be beneficial to do whatever we can to make that happen, but we know that some things are not on the table as we head into the election. The Mississippi State Health Department announced in October that they will provide free combination mask-shields for elderly voters and people with pre-existing conditions at county and drive-thru testing locations. However, it will be up to voters to grab these before heading to the polls. The combination masks provide the same protection that healthcare workers use when interacting with COVID-19 patients and help to reduce transmission. Watson’s office provided $500,000 worth personal protective equipment for poll workers across the state and to voters on a first come, first served basis. Is it perfect? No,” Dobbs said. Dobbs said, “Is there anything else we can do to help people?” Absolutely.”