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Statewide Democratic candidates call for voting rights reform

By GIDEON HESS Daily Journal Sep 14, 2023

Attorney Ty Pinkins speaks at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., about his becoming the new nominee of the Mississippi Democratic Party for secretary of state to replace a candidate who left the race because of health problems, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023. Pinkins faces Republican incumbent Michael Watson in the Nov. 7 general election. Rogelio V. Solis I AP

Mississippi’s Democratic attorney general nominee Greta Kemp Martin and secretary of state nominee Ty Pinkins campaigned in the Delta on voting rights and campaign finance reform at joint press conferences Thursday in Vicksburg and Greenville.

The duo contrasted themselves with incumbent Republican opponents Attorney General Lynn Fitch and Secretary of State Michael Watson, who have sparred in the press this year.

“We need leaders who answer each other’s phone calls,” Kemp Martin said.

Both Pinkins and Kemp Martin criticized Republican officials’ decision to defend Mississippi’s Jim Crow-era lifetime ban on voting for certain convicted felons.

“The lifetime felony voting ban is a system of disenfranchisement,” Kemp Martin said.

A lawsuit is challenging the state constitution’s lifetime ban on voting for people convicted of certain felonies — “instituted expressly for racist purposes,” Pinkins pointed out. Today, the ban affects tens of thousands of people, disproportionately Black. A three-judge panel in the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court ruled last month the bans were unconstitutional, but Fitch has filed an appeal of that ruling.

“I think it's a pretty clear message to the voters that state leaders like Lynn Fitch and Michael Watson do not want full, fair elections in Mississippi, period,” Kemp Martin said.

“Michael Watson is a lawyer,” Pinkins said. “When you finish paying for your crime, you should have those basic fundamental rights back.”

Reached for comment, the attorney general’s office pointed to language in its appeal brief claiming the panel’s ruling “conflicts with binding precedent” in another case.

Pinkins, a Rolling Fork native, 21-year military veteran and Delta lawyer whose focus has included unfair labor practices and electoral redistricting, accused Republicans of intentionally making Mississippi “tragically, the toughest state to vote in.” He said online registration, early voting and absentee ballot reform should be the first steps to improve voting access.

Pinkins called voting in Mississippi a “maze, and it is deliberate.” He said the Republican Party “seems to wear a badge of honor in making the state last” on voting access.

Because of limitations on absentee voting, he said, some voters “have to choose between a day of work and exercising the right to vote.”

He criticized Republican voting laws like SB 2358, which a federal judge blocked because its limitations on assisting voters with absentee ballots could prevent disabled people from voting.

"Neither Michael Watson nor Lynn Fitch has shown any evidence these methods will be insecure," Kemp Martin said. "I challenge them to show evidence. They operate in these assumptions and allegations.”

In a statement provided by a spokesperson, Watson said he's proud of the work the state, including his office, has done to "strengthen the integrity" of elections in Mississippi.

“I’m also proud of the record turnout in the face of COVID in 2020 and of the roughly quarter-of-a-million newly registered voters since I’ve been in office," he said. "Those two facts alone disprove my opponent’s baseless rhetoric.”

Kemp Martin, a Tishomingo County native and disability rights lawyer, described a four-point plan to aggressively investigate campaign finance violations, protect voter rights, uphold election integrity and collaborate with the secretary of state and other officials.

“What exactly is Lynn Fitch doing as our attorney general?” Kemp Martin asked, noting Fitch has not filed annual status reports and has not demonstrated strong enforcement of campaign finance laws.

Critics, including Watson and Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann have suggested state law may need to change if Fitch’s office does not increase its exclusive enforcement authority.

Kemp Martin said Fitch has been too focused on “frivolous” activism in other states, including amicus briefs filed in cases in Texas and Tennessee.

Fitch’s campaign spokesperson was contacted for additional comment for this story but had not done so by press time.

The Democratic duo told the Daily Journal they believe Thursday’s Delta tour was the first joint campaign event of the season by Democratic nominees for statewide office.

It was the candidates’ first dual appearance since Pinkins was announced last week as replacement for Shuwaski Young, who withdrew for medical reasons soon after state officials questioned his residency.

There are Democratic challengers for all eight Republican statewide officeholders in the Nov. 7 election. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Brandon Presley has raised the most attention and money by far.

Democratic state officials have said the party’s strategy includes higher turnout of Black voters in the Delta compared to the 2019 state elections, in which Republicans won all statewide offices.


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