HED:Elections to be held as scheduled

AUTHOR: BOBBY

HED:Elections to be held as scheduled

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Elections in nearly 300 municipalities statewide will go on as scheduled today even though consideration was given to asking the U.S. Supreme Court to postpone the contests.

In the end, though, the U.S. Department of Justice and a group of Mississippians who have filed a lawsuit against the state for its refusal to adopt the federal Motor Voter Law decided not to take its request for an election postponement to the nation’s highest court.

The appeal to the Supreme Court was being considered after a request to halt the elections was turned down Saturday by a three-judge federal panel in Jackson.

The judges said, “We consider what we have been asked to do to be weighty in the extreme. We are asked on the eve of an election date to enjoin hundreds of elections in cities, towns and small communities throughout the state of Mississippi – that is to bring the democratic processes to a halt in every precinct in the state.”

The people suing the state for not letting motor voter registrants participate in the elections decided that there might not be enough time Monday to make a postponement request to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was not clear whether they would try to file the request before the June 3 general election.

“We’re advising everyone to go out and vote,” said social rights advocate Rims Barber of Jackson, who is part of the lawsuit against the state. Barber said people who are registered under the Motor Voter law should vote by affidavit ballot. “It will be up to the state of Mississippi to decide whether to count the ballot,” Barber said.

Tupelo City Clerk Lynn Norris said poll workers today will be prepared to take affidavit ballots from motor voter registrants. He said he does not know if the votes will be counted. Norris said there are 786 Motor Voter registrants in the city of Tupelo. Officials estimate there are as many as 40,000 motor voter registrants statewide.

It appeared at one point last week that those 40,000 people would be allowed to vote today. Attorney General Mike Moore, who serves as the state’s attorney, and Secretary of State Eric Clark, who oversees elections in the state, had reached an agreement with the people suing to allow Motor Voter Law registrants to vote in the municipal elections and all other contests until the Legislature acted on the issue. But on Saturday, the three-judge panel refused to approve the agreement.

Controversy not new

Legal maneuvering in recent days is just the latest in the controversy that has been brewing since 1995 when the state Legislature first failed to enact a Motor Voter Law. Because of the inaction of the Legislature, people who register under the Motor Voter Law can participate in federal elections, but not state, county and municipal elections. The Motor Voter Law allows people to register at driver’s license bureaus and other social service agencies.

Mississippi is the only state not to conform its election laws to the federal Motor Voter Law. This has resulted in confusion at election time and added expense for the county circuit clerks who must maintain two separate voter registration books, Clark and others have said.

Besides the expense and confusion, the Supreme Court ruled in March that the dual voter registration system is illegal because it has not been approved the U.S. Department of Justice as required by the 1964 Voting Rights Act.

Because of that lack of approval, the Justice Department and the group of citizens suing the state have been preparing to ask the federal courts to halt the municipal elections. That is when the Offices of Secretary of State and Attorney General began negotiating the deal that was rejected by the three-judge federal panel.

Bob Sanders of the Attorney General’s Office said the Supreme Court ruling made it clear that Mississippi would have to gain Justice Department approval to have a dual registration system. Chris Herren, an attorney with the Justice Department, told the three-judge panel in a hearing Friday that his federal agency probably would not approve the dual registration system. That, Sanders said, is why the Attorney General’s Office agreed to the settlement.

Without a settlement, Sanders said he feared that the Justice Department also would not approve upcoming special elections. Under the Voting Rights Act, any special election, such as one to fill a vacant office or to pass a school bond, must be approved by the Justice Department.

“The state election machinery could grind to a halt because of the other matter pending,” Sanders said, referring to lack of Justice Department approval for motor voter.

But that argument did not convince the judges.

The federal panel said it “had neither the information nor the time to consider thoroughly whether the proposed decree is appropriate for this court to enter as a remedy for the failure to preclear certain federal election changes, given its sweeping reform of Mississippi election laws – apparently contrary to state legislative and executive expressions.”

Fordice against it

On the executive level, Gov. Kirk Fordice has spoken out against the Motor Voter Law.

“It should be called welfare voter not motor voter,” Fordice said last week.

Efforts have been under way in the Mississippi Legislature in recent years to pass a Motor Voter Law. For the past two years, the majority of the members have favored passing a bill. The bill has been held up by Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, chairman of the House Apportionment and Elections Committee.

In 1996, Denny opposed motor voter on philosophical grounds, saying it already was easy enough to register to vote in Mississippi. This past session, Denny said he wanted to wait until the Supreme Court acted on the issue before passing a Motor Voter Bill.