After a lengthy and sometimes heated discussion on whether to require masks at voting precincts on Election Day, officials agreed on two things:
They’re asking voters to wear masks.
No voter will be turned away, mask or not.
Otherwise there was much disagreement on details at Thursday’s Pike County Board of Supervisors meeting.
The subject — which was discussed at a prior meeting without resolution — came up again Thursday when resident Eddie Simmons asked supervisors to require masks.
“That’s not a hard answer,” Simmons said. “We’ve got to protect our elderly citizens whether they’re Republican or Democrat.”
Board president Sam Hall noted that the county still has a mask mandate for county buildings and said that should apply to voting precincts as well.
“People have to wear a mask to go into county buildings, and we never released that, and the precincts fall under the definition of county property,” he maintained.
Board attorney Wayne Dowdy said voting precincts could be considered a “satellite of the courthouse” on Election Day, Nov. 3. He noted that 15 of the county’s 25 precincts are inside municipalities, most of which have their own mandate.
Supervisor Robert Accardo countered that the county’s mask mandate was never intended to apply to voting precincts.
He said he talked to an election official at the Secretary of State’s Office and was told that supervisors can require masks, “but you’re going to get sued by the Justice Department and/or right-wing conservative organizations.”
Fighting such lawsuits would be a financial burden on taxpayers, Accardo said.
“I’m opposed to this county requiring masks for a voter to enter that precinct,” he said.
Simmons noted that the county could likewise be sued for the courthouse mask mandate.
“The county already has that mandate. You’re doing what’s right for the county workers that’s being exposed to all that,” Simmons said.
Courthouse deputies refuse entry to anyone without a mask.
Supervisor Lee Fortenberry noted that the county mask mandate followed the governor’s, which has ended. And supervisors “caught heat” for doing that.
“I just say the poll workers bring a mask. That should protect them,” Fortenberry said. “I don’t see how we can enforce it.”
Supervisor Tazwell Bowsky said, no matter what the board does, “You’re not going to tell someone they can’t vote. You let them vote.”
Supervisor Jake Gazzo cited an article he read in which a state official said it would be unconstitutional to require a voter to wear a mask.
“I say we strongly encourage it,” Gazzo said, noting that voting precincts will have masks for voters who don’t have one.
Fortenberry agreed. “I would say strongly encourage.”
Accardo addressed the public: “Please, if you go to vote, please wear a mask for the benefit of the poll workers and everyone around you.”
Election Commissioner Stacee Ott said the commission was hoping supervisors would pass a proclamation to that effect. She expressed hope that voters will comply regardless.
“I don’t think we’re going to have that much problem,” Ott said.
Fellow commissioner Jennifer Gatlin-Barnes said if someone refuses to wear a mask, poll workers will “clear out the precinct,” allow that person to vote, then sanitize the area.
Accardo, who’s a former election commissioner, said that’s a bad idea.
“You will single that person out. You will treat them like a pariah. What you’re saying is you can ride the bus but you have to sit in the back.”
“That’s a terrible example,” Hall said.
Dowdy said supervisors shouldn’t fear a lawsuit if they pass a mandate.
“That’s why we build courthouses,” he said.
He compared a mask mandate to a smoking ban and said it’s defensible as long as it’s “reasonable.”
Circuit Clerk Roger Graves cited a Clarion-Ledger article in which a former head of public health in Alabama called failure to pass a voting mask mandate “absolute insanity.”
In the article, Mississippi Secretary of State officials said the election is federal, and only Congress, the state Legislature or a constitutional amendment can pass a mandate.
On the other hand, Hinds County is requiring masks at voting stations, Graves said.
Whether people wear masks or not, “anyone that comes, they’re going to be treated respectfully,” Graves said. “The sheriff will not be involved.”
He said poll workers — which have been in short supply — have expressed concerns about catching the virus if masks are not required. At least one threatened to quit.
“The poll workers are going to be protected,” Graves said.
Hall pointed out that African Americans have been hit especially hard by the virus.
“I’m real concerned about the African-American community,” he said. “I don’t want them to refuse to come because there will be people there without masks.”
He reiterated his belief that the current county mandate applies to voting precincts anyway.
“We have a mandate already in place,” he said.
Supervisors took no action on the matter.
Meanwhile, election commissioners already have signs reading, “Please wear a mask, Maintain a distance of 6 feet whenever possible.”