After drawing national headlines for suggesting that making too many “woke” and “uninformed” college students registered voters would be bad for the nation, Mississippi’s top elections official is expressing some regret.

“Michael Watson told Dave (Elliot) he probably could have found a better way to word his thoughts about the automatic registration idea,” WLOX anchor Alison Spann reported in a news broadcast today.

Elliot, a WLOX anchor, interviewed Watson about possible voting reforms under the Biden administration. During the appearance, Watson incorrectly claimed that Biden was “basically employing all the federal agencies, universities and colleges to register as many folks as they can via this automatic voter registration.” Biden’s order does not mention colleges, universities or automatic registration.

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

“Woke” is a term that originated in Black culture to describe enlightenment on issues of systemic racism and white supremacy, but Republicans like Watson have since co-opted it as an epithet to describe citizens they disagree with when it comes to issues about racism in American culture.

‘Even Racists In This Country Have A Right to Vote’

The Mississippi official’s remarks flew under the radar until the Crirec reported on them Tuesday after Twitter user @jallen1985 flagged them in a video clip. National media outlets, including CNN and MSNBC, have since reported the remarks.

“It takes no great power of analysis to understand the anti-democratic motives behind Republicans’ late fervor to restrict voting. One need only listen to what Republicans themselves say,” The Washington Post Editorial Board wrote in an editorial today, quoting Watson’s words as well as citing the Crirec report. “A party confident in its policies would attempt to win new voters to its side. Republicans in many states, including Georgia, have adopted a different strategy: Make it harder to vote.”

On his April 7 show, CNN anchor Don Lemon said Mississippi’s secretary of state was “saying the quiet part out loud.”

“He actually said that. … Everyone who is of legal age should be able to vote whether they’re a college student or not,” Lemon said. “You talk about woke people—woke people have a right to vote. Sadly, even racists in this country have a right to vote. Everyone has a right to vote. Think about what you’re saying, sir.”

“He's saying the quiet part out loud.”

CNN's @DonLemon discusses a recent comment from Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson about registering college students to vote.

— CNN Tonight (@CNNTonight) April 8, 2021

Mississippi Votes, an organization that has registered thousands of college students across Mississippi to vote, released a statement today criticizing Watson’s remarks.

“As a collective, young voters are savvy and quick learners. This generation of voters has more access to information than any other. These young people have already shown that they have the capability to lead our state and we must allow them to step into these roles by providing them with the resources and support they need,” Mississippi votes said.

“We should be empowering students who take an interest in learning about our political processes and are putting in the effort to make it better and more equitable for everyone. It does all Mississippians a disservice to discount the intelligence of our young people.”

Jarrius Adams, the president of the Young Democrats of Mississippi, called Watson’s comments “baffling and disrespectful” in a statement for the group today, saying the secretary of state “should be championing efforts to update our election systems here in Mississippi, and processes to help make it easier for our citizens—including young people—to participate in our democracy.”

“Our top election official should be a trusted source for voters, not one who spreads misinformation and pushes partisan charged talking points on TV. … We encourage him to visit one of our amazing colleges or universities to see the quality of students our state has to offer. Young people are the future of our state, and whether he likes it or not, we will continue to fight for a better Mississippi,” Adams said.

‘The Things That We Have Held Dear Here in Mississippi’

During the March 26 interview, WLOX anchor Elliot asked Watson about The For The People Act, a federal bill the U.S. House passed last month. If the Senate passed it and President Biden signed it into law, it would bar certain kinds of voting restrictions and require states to expand ease of access to the ballot box for voters with measures like in-person early voting, which Mississippi does not currently offer.

“Generally, the states handle elections, but it looks to me like they’re trying to nationalize and federalize elections,” anchor Elliot told Watson during the interview late last month.

“Absolutely, Dave. It’s a trainwreck. It really is. It really deconstructs our elections as we hold them here in Mississippi as well as across the country,” Watson said, referring to Mississippi’s voting laws, which are more strict and provide fewer options than most other states.

Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson, seen here in a 2020 video clip, claimed that President Joe Biden’s March 6 executive order includes automatic voter registration and that “woke” and “uninformed” college students could become registered voters without their knowledge. The executive order does not include such a provision. Screenshot courtesy Mississippi Secretary of State

Then, the secretary invoked some of the claims that Republicans nationwide, including some in Mississippi, repeated as the former president attempted to hold onto power after losing the 2020 election.

“You talk about the things that we have held dear here in Mississippi that really have returned some voter confidence to our elections, and you look back at 2020 and the questions that remain from it. (The For The People Act) is basically the roadmap of 2020 put into elections,” Watson said.

He was talking about baseless claims of voter fraud that Republicans nationwide, including some in Mississippi, repeated as the former president attempted to hold onto power despite losing the 2020 election.

Despite his innuendo, top U.S. officials, including ones who served in the Trump administration, have said the 2020 elections were the most secure in history and that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. But Watson also made misleading claims about The For The People Act’s voter ID requirements. The For The People Act requires states with voter ID laws, like Mississippi, to allow voters who do not have an acceptable form of ID on them when they arrive at the polls to vote by affidavit.

“You talk about voter ID, should this pass, you would not be able to force someone to show voter ID,” Watson said. “Basically someone could come in and say, ‘I am who I am and, oh, by the way, I’ll sign an affidavit,’ but they would not have to show voter ID.”

The news anchor told Watson he saw the bill’s voter ID provision as “a real end-around on the fact that they’ve been wanting, the Democrats in this case, to get rid of voter ID in one form or another.” The affidavit requirement, Elliot expounded, is “kind of a sneaky way to get around that.”

But Mississippi voters can already vote by sworn affidavit if they do not have a photo ID on Election Day, and their ballot will count so long as they present an accepted form of ID to their circuit clerk’s office within five business days.

‘I Don’t Care If It’s Widespread Or Not’

“Michael, you and I agree, we want as many people to register, we want it to be as easy as possible, and we want voter turnout to be as high as possible,” Elliot said during his March 26 interview with Watson. “But some of these, not necessarily absentee, but some of this early voting, some of this mail-in voting, what are some of your thoughts on that?”

“People say (voter fraud) is not widespread. Well, I don’t care if it’s widespread or not. If it affects one election, that’s one too many,” Watson replied.

Voters statewide, like those seen here at the Marks Apartment precinct in Madison County, waited hours in line to vote on Nov. 3, 2020. Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson opposed requiring masks at polling places, citing his conservative beliefs. Photo by Nate Schumann.

The WLOX anchor then implied that the The For The People Act could be detrimental to Mississippi’s ability to control its own elections. “It sounds to me like the little red states like Mississippi, if this thing goes through, are going to be powerless,” Elliot said.

Watson agreed.

“I don’t know that a Republican could ever win another national election,” the secretary of state said.

Mississippi Votes Backs Automatic Registration

In its statement today, Mississippi Votes urged Watson to “implement plans to expand voting access as promised in his 2019 Campaign plans.”

Arekia Bennett
Arekia Bennett, executive director of Mississippi Votes

The organization also offered policy suggestions to make voting easier for students, including implementing automatic voting registration at the state and local levels to “increase accessibility and participation in the voting process” and “eliminate the cost of processing paper voter registrations.”

“In Mississippi, the voter registration process has cost the state of Mississippi $5.44 to process a single voter registration form; AVR will eliminate that cost,” the group said.

Mississippi Votes is also urging Watson to implement electronic absentee voting for college students and the organizations’ First Time Voters Program in high schools statewide.

“Mississippi Votes would like to work with the Secretary of State’s office to follow through with those plans with young people across the state as thought partners,” the organization said today. “We invite the Secretary of State’s Office to join us for our Democracy Class next Saturday, April 17, 2021, to witness just how informed young people from across the state of Mississippi actually are about the issues and the process of voting.”

Award-winning News Editor Ashton Pittman, a native of the South Mississippi Pine Belt, studied journalism and political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. Previously the state reporter at the Jackson Free Press, he drove national headlines and conversations with award-winning reporting about segregation academies. He has won numerous awards, including Outstanding New Journalist in the South, for his work covering immigration raids, abortion battles and even former Gov. Phil Bryant’s unusual work with “The Bad Boys of Brexit" at the Jackson Free Press. In 2021, as a Crirec reporter, he was named the Diamond Journalist of the Year for seven southern U.S. states in the Society of Professional Journalists Diamond Awards. A trained photojournalist, Ashton lives in South Mississippi with his husband, William, and their two pit bulls, Dorothy and Dru. Follow on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].