With the March 10 primaries a little over two weeks away, Mississippi’s freshly elected Secretary of State Michael Watson visited with Pike County election officials on Thursday to hear feedback and suggestions.
In a meeting with election commissioners and circuit clerk’s office employees, Watson discussed election security, accountability and moving control of driver’s licence renewals to his office.
“(The meeting) was great. I can just not say enough,” Pike County Circuit Clerk Roger Graves said. “We’ve never had a Secretary of State to come meet with us. For him to be that open and to take the time and listen to us and for us to get to tell him some of our concerns — I just cannot say enough about it.”
Watson spoke about election security during the meeting and said Mississippi has one of the strongest systems in the country. He also said that states are working together to pass information about attacks and mistakes along to make sure others are aware of possible issues.
“Obviously, we’ve seen mistakes in other states,” Watson said. “We get hit literally every day from other countries around the world and in the United States as well, and I’m always happy to tell folks we’ve never been compromised or breached, so the data is safe here in Mississippi.
“I feel good about our information in Mississippi. I feel good about our process, and again, it is these meetings with our clerks and our commissioners — having those relationships where we can say, ‘Hey, look out for this,’ puts us more on a proactive approach rather than a reactive.”
The commissioners’ main concerns rested on their belief that the previous Secretary of State, current Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, made changes to the election system to benefit other areas, regardless of the inconveniences it made in other counties.
“There are a lot of good things about Delbert Hosemann, but one of the things I did not like about the way he made policy. He made laws and policies based on one or two counties having a problem,” election commissioner Trudy Berger said. “That’s not good policymaking — based on one bad apple. You don’t change a law for 82 counties state-wide based on one problem.”
Watson said he hopes to have a more team-oriented approach to policymaking to keep from making changes that only benefit some counties.
“Having a team approach is much better in my mind, and that is what you are going to see from me,” Watson said. “Hopefully, that won’t be the case when we make a law that we punish the good people for a couple bad actors.”
Berger also talked about training requirements for becoming a commissioner and mandatory training sessions. Watson said he has no involvement in the training but will encourage those who do to consider her concerns.
The commissioners also discussed the election commissioner’s help desk, which Berger said had many issues.
“The help desk is a joke,” Berger said. “Commissioners cannot do a state-wide search. ... How are we supposed to keep up with voters when you can’t find out if they are registered in another jurisdiction?”
Watson asked Berger if the Motor-Voter Law was causing the problem. The Motor-Voter Law is another name for the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which gave people the option to renew their voter registration when renewing their driver’s license. Berger said the law was “awful.”
“The Driver’s License Bureau really wants to issue driver’s license. They really don’t care about being involved in voting,” Graves said.
Berger said when there are issues, voters get mad at the commissioners even though the issue spawned from the Driver’s License Bureau.
Watson spoke briefly about the possibility of moving driver’s license renewals under his jurisdiction to increase efficiency, accessibility and technology usage. Legislation has been drafted into the Senate, and it was referred to the Chairman of the Appropriations committee.
However, multiple news outlets have reported opposition to that proposal from House Speaker Philip Gunn.
The state’s drivers license bureaus have been plagued by long lines, frequent shutdowns and personnel shortages over the past couple of years, giving Watson an argument for shifting that state service under his oversight.
Gunn, however, is not convinced it’s a good idea.
“While the Speaker is committed to seeing improvements at the state’s drivers license bureaus, he does not support moving oversight of the services to the Secretary of State’s office,” Emily Simmons, Gunn’s spokeswoman, told Mississippi Today earlier this month. “He believes the services can be best improved within the Department of Public Safety, with the ultimate goal being to make the process as efficient as possible for Mississippians.”
Watson said he’s still hoping to push that goal through other legislative channels.
“We are working with the Senate right now,” Watson said. “I think there is a good appetite. We just have to continue to work with them and make sure they understand and make sure they have a good grip on the goal itself.”