Concerns About 'Uninformed' Voters Smack of Jim Crow, Mississippi Ex-Governor Says

The former governor of Mississippi, Ray Mabus, has taken aim at the state's election chief for his views on a presidential executive order designed to promote voter access.

Mississippi's Republican secretary of state, Michael Watson, criticized the order signed by President Joe Biden on March 6, the 56th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" when state troopers beat and tear-gassed civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama.

Watson told local TV station WLOX on March 26 that he believed the order, which aims to expand access to voter registration and election information, would task "all the federal agencies, universities and colleges to register as many folks as they can."

Watson described a scenario in which FEMA came to help with a hurricane on the Gulf Coast, saying: "On that FEMA application now is going to be an area for voter registration, and it's automatic voter registration unless you opt out.

"So, think about all those woke college and university students now who will automatically be registered to vote whether they wanted to or not."

Governor Mabus on this absurd performance by @MichaelWatsonMS.

Watson's suggestion—that woke college students want protection from voter registration because they believe they are too uninformed to vote—drips with

— ELENA KAGAN STAN ACCOUNT (@jallen1985) April 4, 2021

"You've got an uninformed citizen who may not be prepared and ready to vote. Automatically, it's forced on them: 'Hey, go make a choice.' And our country's going to pay for those choices."

The executive order does not mention the educational institutions described by Watson, or FEMA. It also does not discuss using unrelated forms for automatic voter registration or requiring people to "opt out."

Mabus, a Democrat who was the state's governor between 1988 and 1992 and served as secretary of the navy under President Barack Obama, took a swipe at Watson's comments.

Retweeting a video of the WLOX interview on Twitter, Mabus wrote: "His talking points are from [the] 1950s. Slightly updated. Literacy tests anyone?"

This was an apparent reference to policies by segregationist lawmakers in the Jim Crow era in which literacy tests were used to prevent Black people from voting. Already facing higher illiteracy rates, Black people in Mississippi were often given longer literacy tests than white applicants, the Mississippi Free Press reported.

Watson backed a bill earlier this year that would have required some voters in his state to provide proof of citizenship.

The measure was part of a suite of bills that would have limited voting in some places, but it died before the legislative session ended, according to the Free Press.

Newsweek has contacted Watson's office for comment.

Democrats want to expand voting access and Biden's executive order directs the head of each federal agency to submit within 200 days a plan that outlines how they can promote voter registration and participation.

This would include increasing online and social media information campaigns, as well as distributing voter registration and vote-by-mail ballot applications.

The administration's push comes as legislatures across the country move to increase voting restrictions.

Georgia's GOP-majority legislature passed a law last month to impose stricter ID requirements for absentee voting and limit drop boxes. The move has sparked anger among those who say it disenfranchises Black voters.

Former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus
Ray Mabus, former governor of Mississippi, pictured in Washington, D.C. in 2016. He has criticized Mississippi's secretary of state Michael Watson for his stance on voter participation. Alex Wong/Getty Images