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Analysis: Mississippi has options for new secretary of state

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

Mississippi voters are choosing a new secretary of state this year, and the two candidates are divided over some big proposals for the office.

Democrat Johnny DuPree says he would push legislators to authorize online registration for new voters. Republican Michael Watson says he’d support that only with assurances that cybersecurity wouldn’t be compromised.

Watson says he wants the secretary of state’s office to take over the responsibility of issuing driver’s licenses — a service that’s provided by the Department of Public Safety and is plagued by long lines. DuPree says he opposes moving the licensing process.

Mississippi’s current secretary of state, Republican Delbert Hosemann, has held the office for three terms and is now facing state Rep. Jay Hughes in the race for lieutenant governor.

The secretary of state’s office has a wide range of duties. It’s the place where candidates file campaign finance reports and businesses file documents of incorporation. The secretary of state regulates charities, securities, pre-need funeral plans, perpetual care cemeteries and relationships between sports agents and athletes. The office oversees public-land leases, which generate money for schools. The office also publishes state regulations and compiles the Mississippi Official and Statistical Register, commonly called the blue book.

Both of the nominees for secretary of state have experience in public office.

Watson, 41, of Pascagoula, is an attorney has served three terms as a state senator in a district that’s entirely in coastal Jackson County.

DuPree, 65, is a real estate broker and served 16 years as Hattiesburg mayor. He was previously a Forrest County supervisor and Hattiesburg school board member. He was also the Democratic nominee for governor in 2011, falling to Republican Phil Bryant in the general election.

This year, as in 2011, DuPree is running what he describes as “a very peaceful campaign” while being far outspent.

“I think it’s very difficult for Democrats in Mississippi to win, simply because people don’t believe Democrats can win and therefore it’s difficult to raise funds,” DuPree said Oct. 3 when he and Watson took part in a candidate forum at William Carey University in Hattiesburg.

The candidates were asked about the biggest change they would propose as secretary of state. Watson said it would be taking over the issuing of driver’s licenses.

“Right now, we see our public having just a John Brown heck of a time trying to get their license,” Watson said.

DuPree said the secretary of state’s office already has plenty of responsibilities. “Taking over another state office, I think, is really not the way to do it,” he said.

DuPree said his biggest proposals would be in election processes. In addition to wanting online registration for new voters, he said he would propose open primaries. DuPree said people are sometimes torn between wanting to vote in one party’s primary for sheriff and another party’s primary for offices such as secretary of state.

“People shouldn’t have to make that decision,” DuPree said.

Though he didn’t mention Mississippi’s next-door neighbor, Louisiana puts all candidates on a single ballot for the first round of voting. Mississippi legislators have given scant attention to open-primary proposals. They’ve also been reluctant to change voter registration processes or to consider other changes DuPree mentioned, including changing elections from Tuesdays to Saturdays or changing Mississippi’s statewide elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years to make them coincide with federal elections.

While Watson raised security concerns about changing the voter registration process, the Republican said the secretary of state needs to push to make it mandatory, rather than optional, for candidates to file campaign finance forms that users can easily search. “Transparency is key,” Watson said.

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» EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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