By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — Mississippi’s top election official questioned Tuesday whether the U.S. Justice Department will fairly consider the state’s voter ID law after a department employee criticized the state on Facebook.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, said Stephanie Gyamfi (GAM-fee), a civil rights analyst for the department, posted Mississippi should change its motto to “disgusting and shameful.”
The chief of the Justice Department’s voting section, T. Christian Herren Jr., said the department reviewed Gyamfi’s remarks and found they were personal and not work-related. He said she made them after some University of Southern Mississippi students chanted “Where’s your green card?” to a Puerto Rican basketball player at a game in March. One of Gyamfi’s Facebook friends posted a comment about the chant, and she responded to that post.
“We further understand that the post bore no relationship to voting legislation in Mississippi or the Department of Justice’s Review of such legislation,” Herren wrote in a letter to Hosemann, which the department also released to the media. “The post does not represent the views of the Department regarding Mississippi.”
Because of Mississippi’s history of racial discrimination, it needs federal approval for any election changes.
Mississippi’s three Republican U.S. representatives — Alan Nunnelee, Gregg Harper and Steven Palazzo — sent a letter to the Justice Department on Tuesday expressing concerns about Gyamfi’s remark and questioning whether Mississippi could receive a fair review of a voter ID law, legislative redistricting or other matters.
“It is clear that Ms. Gyamfi lacks the objectivity to review matters as they relate to the state of Mississippi, and we respectfully ask that you assure us that our state is not under her purview,” the congressmen wrote.
Herren said Gyamfi doesn’t work on Mississippi issues and the department will ensure that she continues not to. He said that as a civil rights analyst who’s not an attorney, Gyamfi does not have the authority to make final decisions about any state’s elections changes that need approval under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Hosemann said Tuesday that it’s possible for Mississippi to circumvent the Justice Department and seek approval for the voter ID law from a federal circuit court in Washington, D.C., where he thinks the state might have a better chance for approval.
“I think when you read comments like the comments this DOJ person posted on Facebook, I think anybody with any common sense can realize that there’s a culture of prejudice there in the Justice Department against Southern states and against Mississippi,” Hosemann said. “Those people haven’t been down here and haven’t lived down here and don’t know how our system works. And they don’t know how far we’ve come from the old days of segregation and racism and discrimination. This is not your father’s Mississippi.”
Hosemann spoke at a Capitol news conference attended by about 40 tea party members who applauded when he criticized federal officials.
The Justice Department in recent months has rejected voter ID laws from Texas and South Carolina, other Southern states that need federal approval for election changes under the Voting Rights Act.
In last November’s general election, 62 percent of Mississippi voters approved a state constitutional amendment requiring voters to show a driver’s license or other photo identification at the polls. The House and Senate have passed a bill to enact the provisions into law, and Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said he intends to sign it.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, made an initial submission about voter ID to the Justice Department in January, and the department said in March that it couldn’t make a decision until the state had enacted a law.
At the end of the legislative session in late April, the Republican-controlled House and Senate put $395,000 into Hosemann’s budget for possible voter ID litigation. Democrats questioned why the money is needed if the attorney general is already seeking Justice Department approval for voter ID, which is the normal process.
Supporters of voter ID say it’s needed to help ensure the integrity of elections by preventing people from voting under others’ names. Opponents say there’s been little proof of people masquerading as others to cast ballots. They also contend the ID requirement could suppress voter turnout among poor, elderly and minority voters.