It’s regrettable that a state judge had to implement a precaution that the Mississippi Legislature should have ordered to keep Election Day from becoming a potentially lethal occasion.
Nevertheless, Hinds County Chancellor Denise Owens’ broad interpretation of what constitutes a “disability” — assuming it stands — should provide some comfort to voters who are legitimately uncomfortable, because of their medical condition, of voting in person as long as the threat of COVID-19 remains so elevated.
In her order, Owens said that anyone with a pre-existing health problem — which has been well-established as directly correlated to severe outcomes from the virus — falls under one of the excuses already provided in state law for voting by absentee ballot.
Owens did not, however, go so far as to say that fear of contracting COVID-19 alone is enough of an excuse. There has to be a pre-existing health condition, or the person has to be caring for someone who is under a doctor’s order to avoid large gatherings, such as polling places, as a precaution.
If there is a problem with Owens’ order, it’s that it does not go far enough in clearly defining disability. The plaintiffs’ cases she cites as qualifying conditions for absentee ballots are straightforward — cancer, lupus, diabetes and kidney disease. But what about obesity, from which an estimated 40% of the state suffers? Is being overweight good enough, or does one also have to have developed at least one of the medical conditions associated with obesity, such as diabetes and heart disease?
Owens said it is not up to election officials who issue absentee ballots to quiz voters claiming the disability exemption. If the voters say they have a disability that puts them at higher risk from COVID-19, that’s good enough.
Michael Watson, the secretary of state who has resisted widespread expansion of absentee voting, is appealing the decision. Maybe that will help provide some additional clarity.
But the general thrust of the chancellor’s decision is correct. These are unsettling times. People who desire to vote should not have to choose between exercising that right and risking their health. Mississippi should be generous with mail-in voting, even if it slightly increases the chance of fraud or of ballots being disqualified because voters don’t follow the rules of casting them.
A surge in absentee ballots may delay the tabulation of the vote, and it will put increased pressure on the Postal Service to speedily process the mail so that the ballots arrive in time.Those are minor considerations, though, when weighed against what this infection can do to vulnerable segments of the population.