Analysis: Vote could end lengthy voter ID debate

By Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press

The long-running legislative debate over requiring photo identification at Mississippi polling places could end come November.

Legislators have received a petition initiative calling for a statewide referendum on the issue in the Nov. 8 general election. Elections for governor, lieutenant governor and other statewide offices also will be on the ballot, along with two other initiatives — an anti-abortion proposal and one restricting the government’s eminent domain authority.

Republican organizers, led by Sen. Joey Fillingane of Petal, spent about a year collecting signatures for the voter ID petition, and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann determined that 131,678 signatures of registered voters were collected. Only 89,285 were needed.

The proposal will be on the ballot, but what remains to be seen is whether lawmakers want to add alternate language to compete with the initiative. Talk around the Capitol last week indicated that was unlikely.

“It will be on the ballot and we won’t have that legislative battle anymore. I wish we could have gotten it done legislatively, but for whatever reason, political or otherwise, we didn’t. This is a good way for people to be comfortable about the outcome,” said Senate Elections Committee Chairman Terry Burton, R-Newton.

Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, who chairs the House Elections Committee, said there’s no need to offer another proposal without strong sentiment to do so from legislators.

Voter ID has been a hot-button issue at the Capitol for a couple of decades. Some would argue it’s been an effective race-baiting tool, allowing all legislators to appeal to their base.

The issue is mostly pushed by Republicans, though some Democrats support it. Proponents say the measure could reduce fraud at the polls. Opponents say there’s no substantial proof of widespread fraud during elections. Some lawmakers also argue the requirement would place a hardship on the poor, elderly and disabled.

Of course, Mississippi’s history is another point altogether. Black legislators cite the racial oppression of the Jim Crow era and contend photo ID is tantamount to the poll taxes of long ago. Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, said there should be more sensitivity over the fact “blood was shed for the right to vote.”

If the measure passes in November, Reynolds said there will likely be fallout. He cited the situation in Georgia, where a new voter ID law is being challenged in the courts by the Democratic Party of Georgia. The Georgia Democrats claim the requirement violates the Georgia Constitution, which gives everyone an “absolute right” to vote as long as they meet the required qualifications.

Mississippi already has seen some court action on the issue. In May 2008, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling that would have forced Mississippians to register by political party and to show photo identification at the polls to be able to vote.

Part of U.S. District Judge Allen Pepper’s 2007 ruling had ordered the state to enact a voter identification law in time for the 2009 elections. Pepper’s ruling came in a suit brought by the Mississippi Democratic Party, which sought to keep nonparty members from voting in its primaries.

The Democrats appealed his order to the 5th Circuit. They were joined in that appeal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the state and the Mississippi Republican Party.

Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, said there will be an education campaign launched to fight the initiative long before this fall’s general election. Without such a campaign, “voter ID appears to be a done deal if it goes to a vote in the climate in Mississippi right now,” Bryant said.