Judge Won’t Extend Absentee Cutoff in Mississippi Election

(CN) – A federal judge on Tuesday rejected a request from the NAACP to extend the deadline for absentee ballots to include those received through today’s U.S. Senate runoff election in Mississippi.

The Mississippi chapter of the civil rights group and three voters filed a lawsuit Nov. 21 seeking “to make the absentee voting procedures less burdensome” and allow ballots received through Election Day to be counted.

Appointed U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., answers a question while Democrat Mike Espy, left, listens during their televised Mississippi U.S. Senate debate in Jackson, Miss., on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool)

All three voters said that they would be out of town during Tuesday’s runoff election between U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy and hadn’t received their requested ballots as of Nov. 20.

Mississippi law requires a voter to have both their absentee ballot application and the ballot itself notarized and received in the circuit clerk’s office by 5 p.m. on the day before Election Day.

“There are two related problems with plaintiffs’ requested relief – it is too late and disturbs the status quo,” Chief U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote in Tuesday’s 8-page order.

The judge acknowledged that the timeline for some voters to receive and mail back their absentee ballots “is tight – if not impossible,” but refused to issue an injunction because “plaintiffs have not shown a substantial likelihood of success primarily because today is Election Day.”

More than 43,000 absentee ballots had been requested for the runoff, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office said. Voters have reported short lines and little problems at most precincts around Mississippi.

“This burdensome process is difficult to navigate in its best of circumstances,” the Nov. 21 lawsuit states. “When compounding circumstances – such as an inability to pay for or find notary services, or a delay in postal delivery – add further complications, it becomes impossible.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee on Tuesday had urged Judge Jordan against changing the system for this runoff election, writing in a motion to intervene that to do so “would result in chaos and unfairness.”

“The counting process would have to be altered and extended to await any ballots that might trickle in. In addition, there is no way for notice of this after-the-fact change in the law to be provided in a meaningful way to ensure that all Mississippians have the opportunity to avail themselves of it. In short, the relief that plaintiffs seek is not only unlawful, but raises its own constitutional concerns,” the 7-page motion states.

Hyde-Smith, 59, and Espy, 64, are locked in the last race of the midterm elections in a Republican stronghold that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in more than three decades.

Hyde-Smith – who was appointed to the seat on an interim basis – was expected to easily cruise to victory after a nonpartisan special election earlier this month winnowed down the field to two. But allegations of racism shifted focus to the former state senator’s background and Mississippi’s own history of racial discrimination and lynching.

She ignited a firestorm of controversy and lost the backing of several major companies after a Nov. 2 video surfaced showing her joking about her willingness to attend “a public hanging.”

“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” Hyde-Smith told a crowd about a political supporter.

Espy’s campaign seized the opportunity to turn the controversial remarks into momentum and had been lifted in recent weeks by prominent Democratic figures and national fundraising groups pumping last-minute enthusiasm and cash into the tighter-than-expected race.

Espy is hoping to become the first African-American U.S. senator to represent the state since the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War. He acknowledged on Monday that he would need more than the state’s 38 percent black population to propel him to victory, calling himself “the candidate to take Mississippi forward.”

But the uproar over Hyde-Smith’s racially charged comments continued to overshadow the race.

Mississippi officials continue to investigate a set of nooses found hanging from trees outside of the state capitol building on Monday.

Handwritten hate signs mentioning Tuesday’s runoff accompanied the nooses. One sign read: “We’re hanging nooses to remind people that times haven’t changed.”

Hyde-Smith has called Espy “too liberal for Mississippi” and slammed his $750,000 lobbying contract from 2011 with the Cocoa and Coffee Board of the Ivory Coast. She reminded voters in ads and on her website that the West African country’s ex-president, Laurent Gbagbo, is being charged with crimes against humanity.

Espy, an attorney, said he terminated the contract. He spent his campaign’s final days blasting Hyde-Smith’s comments as “despicable” and said she would be “a disaster for Mississippi’s economy.”

Republican Governor Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith, a former state agriculture commissioner, to fill outgoing U.S. Senator Thad Cochran’s seat. Cochran retired in March due to health issues.

The winner of Tuesday’s runoff will serve out the remainder of Cochran’s term through 2021.

The secretary of state’s office spread some 30 observers in 64 counties to monitor for any election problems throughout the state.

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