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Federal court hearing on Mississippi absentee ballots pits Republicans against Republicans

A federal judge will hear arguments Tuesday on a lawsuit brought by the state and national Republican parties and the state Libertarian Party that seeks to bar Mississippi election workers from counting mail-in absentee ballots after the date of an election.

U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola, a senior-status judge, set a hearing for Tuesday in Gulfport for arguments from both sides.

The plaintiffs argue that a 2020 state law allowing local election workers to process mail-in absentee ballots for up to five days after an election violates federal law because only Congress sets the timeframe for when votes can be processed. 

The Mississippi law currently permits election workers to count mail-in votes if the ballots were postmarked by the election date. 

The Republican parties, represented locally by former state GOP director Spencer Ritchie, argue that the five-day window should be suspended for federal elections because the statute dilutes the weight of ballots cast on Election Day and harms conservative candidates running for office. 

The litigation marks a peculiar scenario where the national and state Republican parties have filed suit over a law passed by a GOP-dominated Legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves. 

Secretary of State Michael Watson, a Republican, is the state’s chief elections administrator and is now tasked with fighting his own party in court using attorneys from Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s office.

Watson’s office, as well as two voting rights advocacy groups who have intervened in the litigation, argued in separate briefs that the federal suit should be dismissed because the political parties lack legal standing to bring the suit.

“The Mississippi statute does not harm the plaintiff individuals or political parties in any way,” Special Assistant Attorney General Rex Shannon III wrote in a pleading on behalf of Watson’s office. “It does not conflict with laws that set the election day for federal offices. And it does not impair the plaintiffs’ rights to vote or to stand for office under the First and/or Fourteenth Amendments.” 

The Republican-majority state Senate earlier this year passed legislation to abolish the five-day window for processing the absentee ballots after Election Day, but it died in the House.  

After the hearing, it’s unclear when Guirola would issue a ruling. The aggrieved party could appeal his order to the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, though a prompt resolution before the November election is vital. 

The appellate process is lengthy and time consuming, and the November presidential and congressional election is quickly approaching. Mississippians can request an absentee ballot application starting September 6, and the earliest day they can vote by absentee is September 23, according to the secretary of state’s elections calendar. 

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