Federal Judge Temporarily Blocks Mississippi Law Targeting Voters With Disabilities

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Tuesday, July 25, a federal judge temporarily blocked Senate Bill 2358, a recently enacted Mississippi law that limits who can assist voters with disabilities in returning their completed mail-in ballots.  

Enacted in March 2023, S.B. 2358 stipulated that only election officials, postal workers, family members, household members or caregivers can assist voters with disabilities in returning their completed mail-in ballots and imposes criminal penalties and fines on those who violate the law.

Prior to the enactment of S.B. 2358, voters with disabilities could choose anyone — including social workers, voting organizations and other trusted individuals — to assist them with returning their completed mail-in ballots. Republican supporters of the law argued that it would prevent so-called “ballot harvesting,” a pejorative term for the practice in which an individual collects and submits completed mail-in ballots on behalf of registered voters.

Yesterday’s order temporarily blocking the enforcement of S.B. 2358 comes after Disability Rights Mississippi, the League of Women Voters of Mississippi and three voters filed a federal lawsuit challenging the anti-voting law at the end of May. The plaintiffs allege that the challenged law — which makes it harder for voters to cast their ballot and “also risks disenfranchising entirely blind, disabled, or low-literacy voters” — violates Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Section 208 of the VRA guarantees that “[a]ny voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write may be given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice’” so long as the assistor is not the “the voter’s employer or agent of that employer or officer or agent of the voter’s union.”

As a result of yesterday’s order, S.B. 2358 will not be in effect for Mississippi’s upcoming Aug. 8 primary election and Nov. 7 general election. In blocking the law, Judge Henry T. Wingate of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi held that “[t]he statute’s prohibition, which requires criminal penalties, and the statute’s unclear definition of key terms promise to deter otherwise lawful assistors from providing necessary aid to a vulnerable population…This court is sorely concerned with the effect of this statute upon these voters, due to the statute’s broad and vague nature.” 

The order noted that the law, if allowed to remain in effect, would have a far-reaching effect on Mississipians with disabilities as “an estimated one in five adults, more than 850,000 people, in Mississippi suffer from a disability.” Additionally, Wingate countered Mississippi Republicans’ argument that S.B. 2358 would prevent against alleged “ballot-harvesting”: “When questioned by this court, Defendants were unable to provide any data illustrating whether Mississippi has a widespread ballot harvesting problem…This may explain why the definitional approach of the statute is so barren.” 

This ruling is a victory for Mississippi voters with disabilities, who will now be able to receive assistance with returning their completed mail-in ballots from an individual of their choice. As Wingate’s order stated: “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.” 

Read the order here. 

Learn more about the case here.