Many major updates to Mississippi's election law were lost on the last day of 2016 legislative session when the Mississippi House of Representatives killed House Bill 797.
“There’s no reasonable excuse to me,” Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said. "We are disappointed and dismayed in the Mississippi legislature failing to do that. No real excuse for that to me. I’ve asked Governor to put it on his special session when he calls it in June. Bring it back up.”
Hattiesburg Rep. Toby Barker said the election code changes were lost because they were in the same bill that would stop lawmakers from spending campaign dollars on personal items.
“Out of a 291 page conference report, only 10 of those actually dealt with campaign finance reform, so the rest of it was trying to bring Mississippi up to date with technology, trying to clarify some things to prevent past election mishaps from happening," Barker said. "So to lose the whole bill at the very end of session was very unfortunate."
Barker worked as a member of Hosemann's bipartisan election reform committee, which was created in 2014 to help draft the election code changes.
“For two years people have been talking through what we need to do to update Mississippi’s election statute," he said. "Over the course of last summer and fall, several legislators worked with circuit clerks and election commissioners and political parties and Delbert Hosemann’s staff for several months to try and come up with some common sense solutions that had broad buy in. When 797 first passed the House, we passed it with 120 votes and no votes in descent. That’s the kind of vote that we can expect if we brought that bill back. However, with the campaign finance part paired with it, it ended up losing it on a motion to recommit. We’ll give it another shot next year.”
Hosemann said, “Mississippians deserve an election law that makes it harder to cheat, and people are responsible when they do, easier to vote. That’s all in there, and there’s no reason for it ought not to be passed, so you’ll see me bringing it back.”
Hosemann initially said the legislation would be split into a master bill and separate bills, so, in case of a situation like this, some changes could still become law. Two changes that did pass are revised penalties for election crimes and allowing voter registration information to be updated online.
“One, updating and strengthening the penalties for election crimes, whether it’s election fraud or some of the other penalties that we have, those have been enhanced now. That’s a big step forward," Barker said. "The second thing is changing your registration online. The Secretary of State’s office will now work with the Department of Public Safety to try and create this secure online website where if your voter registration information when you change it matches that on your driver’s license, you can actually change your voter registration online. I would like to see it moved to where you can register for the first time online if it matches your driver’s license."
Hosemann said, “It would be very helpful here in Hattiesburg. You can go online and change your registration, move here, move back home or whatever. That passed. The crime law part of it passed, which is very important. Hold people responsible for trying to cheat in the elections. That part passed. We lost early voting. We lost that part. And then we lost what I refer to as the big bill. All the other things that we tried to amend to make it, when you open, how you bring the ballot box back to the headquarters, all of those things are in there and they unfortunately were lost on the last day.”
Hosemann said he hopes the governor will add election reform to his agenda for a special session.
“I’m hopeful," he said. "You know, I have to go sit with him, and he makes that call, not me. But you should anticipate that I’m going to ask him. I hope the governor will put it on a special session. If not, we’ll start next year.”