Mississippi can’t restrict absentee voting assistance this year, U.S. judge says as he blocks law

A federal judge blocked a new Mississippi law that would set criminal penalties for some people who help others with absentee voting — a ruling that comes as absentee ballots are already available in party primaries for governor and other state offices.

U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate wrote in his order Tuesday that Mississippi cannot enforce the law during this year’s Primaries or General Election.

“The 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,” Wingate wrote.

He wrote that the state law violates the Voting Rights Act, a federal law that says any voter who is blind, disabled or unable to read may receive assistance “by a person of the voter’s choice,” other than the voter’s employer or union.

The state law — which was supposed to take effect July 1 — would set a short list of people who can “collect and transmit” an absentee ballot. The list includes employees of the U.S. Postal Service or other mail carriers, plus any “family member, household member or caregiver” of the person receiving an absentee ballot.

Violation of the state law would carry a penalties of up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

Opponents said the limitations could hurt candidates, campaign workers, nursing home employees or others who make good-faith efforts to help people obtain and mail absentee ballots.

Wingate wrote that the criminal penalties, along with law’s unclear definition of terms such as caregiver, “promise to deter otherwise lawful assistors from providing necessary aid to a vulnerable population.”

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