Distrust still drives debate on election law changes

This opinion column appears in the March 10 Daily Journal newspaper. Tell us what you think with a comment below.

JACKSON – The controversy about possible changes – some would say reforms – to Mississippi’s electoral system is at its very core a debate about trust among the races.
Yes, we have come a long way in Mississippi. Blacks and whites work together, live side-by-side, go to school together, even in some instances go to church together. It is eye-opening to watch the inner workings of the Mississippi Legislature where blacks and whites work together to craft legislation.
Yet on the issue that is at the core of our representative democracy – voting rights – there is still distrust among the races.
Last week a group of Republican senators killed legislation sent over from the House that would have made several changes to Mississippi’s election laws. Included in those changes was language requiring Mississippians – with the exception of the elderly – to display a government-issued photo identification before voting.
It was unthinkable that the Republican senators would kill the legislation since they have been arguing for years that Mississippi needs voter ID to help curb fraud.
Voter ID in past years has passed the Senate only to die in the House Apportionment and Elections Committee because a committee majority opposed it. But this year Chairman Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, managed to get a bill out of his committee by combining a number of election changes – including voter identification and early voting. The comprehensive bill – called the Election Reform Act – was meant to be a first step in an effort to compromise.
The Republicans on the Senate Elections Committee didn’tt like those other changes, especially early voting. Instead of stripping those items out, passing a voter ID-only bill and keeping the issue alive for possible compromise, they simply killed the bill.
Most black legislators shed no tears about what the Senate Republicans did in the committee. Black members wanted voter ID dead anyway.
Let’s be honest here. Many African-American leaders don’t like voter ID because they remember a time – in the lifetime of most of us – when state laws were crafted to keep black people from voting.
Now that blacks have influence in the political process they fear that some in the white power structure are again trying to craft laws to in some way limit their electoral participation.
At the very core it is a trust issue.
By the same token, many white Mississippians fear early voting because they believe it is a recipe for corruption. A Republican politician who shall remain nameless said recently he opposed early voting because it could lead to cottage industries where people are loaded on buses to go vote.
Now I do not know what that politician meant, but when we refer to people being transported en masse to vote we are in general terms talking about African- Americans.
We all know it.
But on a real basic level let’s ask what is wrong with people being transported to the polls? There is nothing in our Constitution – as it stands now – that requires a person to own a car to be able to vote.
And the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are constitutionally protected rights.
There is nothing and should be nothing to prevent an enterprising person from offering people a ride to the polls and even offering suggestions on how people should vote.
Yet, there are people who look with disdain on that practice.
It is a trust issue.
People will argue this issue is not about race. They are not being sincere.
It is about race and it is about trust.
Twenty-six states require voter identification, according to Project Vote. Only six states require photo ID like proponents in the Mississippi Legislature are trying to enact this year.
On the other hand, a whopping 36 states allow no-excuse early voting, according to the Pew Center.
Why can those states conduct early voting, but here in Mississippi people say it would lead to corruption?
It is a matter of trust.
Contact Capitol Bureau Chief Bobby Harrison at bharrison@djournal.com or at (601) 353-3119.

 

Bobby Harrison/Daily Journal