Michael Watson is the current Mississippi secretary of state. The Mississippi state Constitution refers to the office as the “keeper of the capitol.” The secretary of state is responsible for administering elections, managing state land, and enforcing business regulations. In all, there are eight divisions of the secretary of state’s office and many of the duties are determined by the state legislature.
Watson is a native of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and is a former three-term state senator, where he represented parts of the southeastern corner of Mississippi. Watson recently spoke with senior editor Ray Nothstine.
Nothstine: This goes back decades, but we’ve seen a long and aggressive rise of administrative rulemaking and regulatory overreach from Washington against the states, against Mississippi, against a lot of states that just want to have more autonomy and self-rule that reflects the intent of the Constitution. This is creating an environment where people are no longer the masters of their government. Is there anything that a Mississippi secretary of state can do to push back against violations and erosions of the separation of powers and restore those proper structures of government?
Michael Watson: Absolutely. One of the things we’ve been doing, [including] back to my time in the legislature, is focusing on cutting the regulatory burden. We talked a lot about the federal regulatory burden and how that’s been growing and continues to grow. The federal government does not have a role to play if it’s not spoken in the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment gives the states the powers and we should control those powers at the state level.
If you look at the secretary of state’s office, clearly, we focus on business services where the regulatory burden is large. We administer elections which are state-run elections. We look at other issues the states should have control over.
When you have federal overreach, there is a practical aspect, making it harder to do business in Mississippi. We launched our Tackle the Tape initiative back in 2020. It focuses on these unelected bureaucrats who are out there making rules and regulations for our small businesses [when they] may not have legislative authority, or any kind of authority, really.
Mississippi is a success story in the making and certainly helping small businesses either cut or navigate the regulatory burden. A few months ago, we had an issue with the U.S. Department of Agriculture we had to push back on. We’ve got example after example of times where the regulatory burden is really suppressing and hurting small businesses.
In addition, what we are seeing with this current administration is an effort to put their foot on the regulatory accelerator. They lost a trifecta of power, then the administration basically told several folks among the different division heads and agency heads, “Hey, look, take your legislative priorities and turn them into rulemaking and administrative priorities now.” They are revealing a desire to just make rules and not legislate.
That’s something we’ve warned and encouraged our federal delegation from Mississippi to fight back against, and we’re going to do it. I think it’s essential for states to stand up and push back against the federal overreach, but also focus on the state level so folks can see how it works there, too.
You signed onto a letter with 14 other secretaries of state pushing back against Executive Order 14019 from the current Biden administration, which is an effort to expand voter registration by the feds. What is the problem with that order and why is it important that states have autonomy in how they run their own elections?
Additionally, I assume a concern is if there is a possibility of collusion between a political party and the federal government or other special interest groups working with the federal government? That removes a balance of power away from the state.
Watson: It does. It’s also confusing, overburdensome, and costly to the states to see this implemented. If you understand the National Voter Registration Act and our Constitution, this is a complete overreach by the executive branch. They have no legal authority to do what they’re doing.
I would remind folks to think about Mark Zuckerberg. Again, this is not to be partisan, but it’s revealing to how this might go down. If one looks at the studies now where a lot of his money was concentrated, these areas voted more heavily for one party.
Given this information, the efforts put into place were meant to turn up the voter turnout in certain areas. The initiative offers a model for the federal government to weaponize voter registration. If groups like these are encouraging federal entities to go out and register voters, who do you think they’re going to target? When they go hire these third-party administrators to come in and help them with the voter registration drives, where do you think they’re going to send them? That’s the problem. It’s weaponizing registration for the current power structure, and in this case, the current administration.
That should raise a bunch of alarms not just for Mississippians, but for all Americans. We’ve got to continue to push back ensuring our secretaries and others who run elections, our circuit clerks here in Mississippi, our elections commissioners, are all aware and then push back every chance we get.
I know Florida and Missouri; they pushed back against Department of Justice administrators coming inside their precincts. I know there’s history around some of the civil rights issues, but I think it was a flex to say, “Hey, you know, we can run fair elections here and we can do it better than you can.” That was interesting to see.
Watson: Absolutely. You’ve seen so much focus on the integrity of the process. Mississippi has strengthened our voting laws over the last four years. People say, “Look, that’s just suppressing the vote.” It is not. Georgia and Texas are other good examples. The participation numbers reveal that once people believe that the process is fair, they’re going to come out and vote. I think it’s important to remind people that integrity and fairness are the goals when it comes to reform.
We’ve done well here. Other states have done a great job as well. Again, that’s the beauty of the 50 laboratories of freedom. What works in Maine may not work in Mississippi. What works in Mississippi might not work in Arizona. What works here in Mississippi, we understand it. We know it. Look at our voter registration numbers. Look at our turnout in 2020 with COVID in our face. It’s never been easier to vote in Mississippi.
Real quickly, there were 14 secretaries of state that signed on to this. I know most states have a secretary of state. Most of them are involved with elections. Do you see more cooperation maybe among secretaries of state who are just proponents of federalism, and they want to push back against meddling in elections? Are you having conversations with other secretaries of state?
Watson: All the time. I think of folks like Tre Hargett in Tennessee or Wes Allen in Alabama. Also, Maggie Toulouse Oliver over in New Mexico. It doesn’t have to be a Republican or Democrat only. As secretaries, we understand that the states know how elections should be run.
Focusing on the integrity of the process is one effective way to push back against federal intervention and overreach.
Let’s make sure we’re following the law. Let’s make sure that our citizens in our states understand what the law looks like and how elections should be run. This year we passed a post-election audit, and again, that’s going to be reviewing the process, making sure elections are accessible and fully comply with the law. That’s what every state should be doing. Focusing on the integrity of the process is one effective way to push back against federal intervention and overreach.
I know that there’s cooperation between data-sharing organizations because of crime and immigration. I know that there are growing concerns with the FBI and a lot of institutions, for good reason since they’re losing authority among the American citizens, and in my view, that’s largely their fault. One example is this kind of sharing of data between Departments of Motor Vehicles and the FBI. Are there any conversations around these issues of data federalism in Mississippi? Do you have any in the state legislature or with the governor?
Watson: Constant focus on data privacy. As you may be aware, the State of Mississippi was hit with a DDoS attack last November in our election. Cybersecurity is a big focus for us. How do we make sure we’re protecting data? Not only from foreign actors, but also from the federal government itself and state governments. It’s important to make sure that, number one, we’re following the Constitution. Number two, there’s no overreach there. Number three, make sure we’re following the legislative process. There shouldn’t be a bunch of bureaucrats out there making rules and regulations from people’s private data.
It should be the legislature via the people taking those decisions into consideration. That’s how it should be working. You’re right, there is a need for data sharing. If you think about human trafficking, drug trafficking, there are criminal entities [and] that calls for a certain level of data sharing. Again, we need to make sure it’s shared in a manner faithful to the Constitution, so rights are protected.
I’m going to pivot just a little bit. In many respects, as secretary of state, you understand the mind of voters in Mississippi and what they need and what they’re thinking about. Do you see reasons for optimism when it comes to a resurgence of self-government and calls for restoring the principles of federalism? Just broadly in your conversations in Mississippi, what are voters and citizens thinking about?
Watson: Look, they’re thinking about the same things. We all want what’s best for our families, communities, and our state. I think a great example for Mississippi, as you look back at Hurricane Katrina, we didn’t sit around waiting for the federal government to come rescue us. As former Governor Haley Barbour said, “We pulled up our bootstraps and got busy.” We are resilient people. We’re tough.
A great example of that was when I was campaigning, and I was up in North Mississippi and had to give a speech, and I had my daughters with me. My wife was singing at a wedding in Nashville.
My youngest daughter had started smelling [like] something, and you know what that means, a dirty diaper. I took her out to change the diaper. Before I could get to the truck and get the diaper changed, I realized I didn’t have any wipeys. A grandfather who was in the parking lot saw me struggling over there and came over and said, “Hey, what’s going on?” I said, “Man, I don’t have any wipeys.” The guy had some wipes in his truck. He went and got them for me. Before I got my daughter’s diaper changed, he had gone to the store and bought me another pack.
…We can take care of ourselves. Government is not the answer to every problem we have.
I remind people this guy is from North Mississippi, another part of the state, and had never met me before. I’m from South Mississippi. Yet what was important was taking care of my daughter, and he recognized that as a grandfather. We are all so similar [whether] you’re a Republican or Democrat, at the end of the day, we want what’s best for our communities. As we realize this and we work together to break down the different silos of government, where we are self-governed, we can take care of ourselves. Government is not the answer to every problem we have.
And I think you’ll continue to see the resurgence of states stepping up and answering the call and pushing back against this federal overreach.
To be a self-governing people, you must have a measure of virtue among the populace. Can you explain what that means to you? What does virtue mean and why is it important for a self-governing people?
Watson: It’s a high moral standard. If you go back to Benjamin Franklin and when he was asked what type of government we have, he essentially said, “It’s a republic, if you can keep it.”
I think we must remember those words. It doesn’t just happen. You must fight for it. You need to make sure you have these virtues of taking care of others. I remember my dad as a pastor always taught me, “Hey, love God first and take care of others.” This should be our goal.
If we’re not in it for ourselves, that’s how we’re going to turn this country around. Look, America is the greatest country that has ever been. We’ve got so many good people. I could tell you story after story here in Mississippi of just the people, salt-of-the-earth-type folks that just care about others. We don’t care about who gets the credit. We just do the next right thing. I think that’s what we’re looking forward to, making sure that we continue to be the greatest country on earth.
This question was inspired by my own experience as a student at Ole Miss. I remember my parents mailed me a check. I think it was a check and somebody got it delivered to them instead. It may have been Marshall or Pontotoc County or another neighboring county. He drove about 20 miles to hand deliver this check to me. He was an old guy, different color skin. I think he had a limp from polio.
You see good and bad people everywhere, but I wanted to ask you that because that’s just one of the many fond memories I have of Mississippi and living there for a long time and going to school there. What do you like most about Mississippi? What would you most like to change?
Watson: I like being known as the Hospitality State. I’ve campaigned and knocked on a lot of doors. Often, the first thing out of the person’s mouth would be, “Hey, you want to sit down for a glass of tea in the next visit?” That’s just who we are. Mississippi is made up of such a wonderful group of people.
I talk about Katrina and the toughness and just the ability to survive through adversity. I’m proud of our people, who we are, and how we care about others. You could see it in our actions, not just our words.
What would I love to change about Mississippi? I think too many times we see good ol’ boys still serving. This is not good for government. It’s not good for self-government. I think people should have a fair shot and government should not be . . . tripping people up, be it through a regulatory burden or any other behind-the-scenes deal which lacks transparency.
Coupled with this idea of silos, too many times I’ve seen different agencies say, “Well, this is my area. Don’t you come over here.” I’m going to do this, and you stay over there. When we can get away from this, we can break those silos down and just let Mississippians be who we are and work together for the common good — producing real reforms and real change. Those would be the two things I’d really like to change.