The Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled that concerns about the likelihood of fraud during the November 2020 election were not valid reasons to prevent old voters from registering to vote.

On Tuesday, Mississippi’s nine justices struck down a state law that required all applicants for absentee voting to establish the existence of a valid invalidating background check prior to registering, and provided a 5-year deadline for registering if a denial was filed later than five years after applying for an absentee ballot. Under the old law, three weeks after the deadline, new voters were required to affirm that they were eligible to vote.

Mississippi secretary of state Delbert Hosemann and the state Department of State Election Commission had warned that letting anyone just get rid of a valid background check and restarting with a false claim might affect overall election outcomes. Hosemann said the law was necessary to strengthen voters’ confidence in the integrity of the election process.

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Officials and groups formed after the Nov. 8, 2016, elections, had taken aim at voting irregularities in rural districts where people had lived for years and set up Confederate markers in their yards. In the May runoff for Mississippi governor, incumbent Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who supports same-sex marriage, said her campaign was hurt by complaints by her opponent, Democrat Alex Sink, that the legislature was trying to “thwart her will.”

“The Mississippi citizens of Mississippi were served a fair and accurate election by these officials and by Sink because of transparency and the law,” Attorney General Jim Hood said in a statement Tuesday. “At the time they claimed to have done it, it was clear to all that the bill was a bad idea. It was clearly the wrong thing to do.”

That legislation was based on a 2014 Mississippi law that would have sought to make it easier for Mississippi residents to cast a vote because the person was on vacation or required a medical release or transfer because they were terminally ill.

Hood, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of state election board members, said the Nov. 8, 2016, elections had changed since the 2014 law was passed. He said many lawmakers who supported it continued to pursue the change. But Hood said most of them eventually made the change after high voter turnout helped them pass the 2015 voter registration law that required new voters to produce a valid foreign-held identification card to be valid.

Court ruling

In Tuesday’s decision, the justices said the 2014 law was not applied “equitably and fairly” in places where voters needed proof of citizenship. They noted that some Mississippi counties report a substantial number of cases of threats or harassment regarding election irregularities, such as voter intimidation or harassment. They also noted that many Democrats ran under Republican control.

“Voter turnout in urban areas was higher than in rural areas, and among black voters, it was even higher,” they wrote. “Proposition 6 rarely even prompted the potential of violence at local campaign events.”

They said there was no evidence that many of the people who sought a clean cast election would have voted illegally.

“If there were complaints that large numbers of people were attempting to vote by misrepresenting their purpose or not declaring who they were, of suspicious intent, then it would be good to be prepared to respond,” they wrote.

Had the state legislature tried to pass a new law on same-sex marriage, the court said, it would have dealt with alleged voter fraud. But the court said the 2014 law was a mistake that would have led to the potential of misconduct “whilst failing to respond adequately to concerns.”