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A Mississippi law limits who can help mail-in voters. A federal court struck it down

A voter holds a ballot during Election Day in Ridgeland, Miss, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.
Rogelio V. Solis
A voter holds a ballot during Election Day in Ridgeland, Miss, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

A U.S. District Court in Mississippi on Tuesday temporarily blocked a voting law in the state that was supposed to go into effect July 1. The law, known asSenate Bill 2358, creates new restrictions for who can assist someone while voting by mail.

Voting rights and disability rights advocates, who filed the lawsuit, argue Mississippi's law violates a federal protection that allows a voter to choose who helps them cast a ballot.

In his orderstriking down the law, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate wrote, "voting polls are expected to extend outstretched hands of welcome and provide unfettered access to conscientious citizens anxious to enjoy 'participatory democracy'- whether those citizens be among the vulnerable and the disabled."

SB 2358, which was signed into law earlier this year, set new limits on who can collect and transmit a ballot that was mailed to someone else. In Mississippi, the state's absentee-by-mail voting program is for limited groups of voters — people out of town on Election Day, people 65 or older and people with a temporary or permanent physical disability.

Under the new law, though, only election officials, postal workers, a family member or household member or a caregiver would be able to assist these voters in mailing back their ballot. The law also set new criminal penalties. Under SB 2358, not following these restrictions is punishable by imprisonment of up to one year in county jail and/or a fine of up to $3,000.

Opponents of Mississippi's law say voters should be able to choose who helps them vote — including a friend or someone from a community organization.

Ahmed Soussi, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a written statement that "Mississippians may now continue to assist voters without the fear of prosecution."

"We are glad that the Court recognized the federal guarantee to voters with a disability or language barrier to select a person of their choice to provide them assistance," he said. "What is important now is to make sure everyone who is eligible to vote does vote in the upcoming elections."

Supporters of the Mississippi law argued it was necessary to prevent ballot harvesting, which is when someone collects and returns other people's ballots.

Many Republicans have argued this practice leads to vote stealing and fraud, which studies have found to be extremely rare in United States elections.

Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said ina video address earlier this year that across the country "bad actors have used ballot harvesting to take advantage of elderly and vulnerable voters." He said the practice is an effort to undermine the democratic process.

"Senate Bill 2358 is now law and Mississippi's elections are safer because of it," Reeves said.

However, Judge Wingate wrote that state and local election officials were "unable to provide any data illustrating whether Mississippi has a widespread ballot harvesting problem" when asked in court.

"Seemingly, no fact-findings or committee-finding investigations or legislative committee inquiries have focused upon this perceived threat," he wrote. "This may explain why the definitional approach of the statute is so barren."

The court's injunction blocking SB 2358 applies to Mississippi's upcoming general election in November — as well as the state's August primary, which is currently underway.

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Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.