By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision saying states that in the past had discriminated against minority voters, such as Mississippi, no longer had to have their election changes approved by the federal government.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said he told U.S. Department of Justice officials at the time that he intended to continue to work with them on enacting voter identification.
The Republican Hosemann said some states that were enacting laws requiring residents to display a government-issued photo identification to vote simply told the Justice Department they no longer wanted their input. The result is that some of those states, like Texas, are facing federal lawsuits to try to block their enactment of voter ID. The Supreme Court ruling did not strip the federal government’s authority to challenge in court voter laws that it viewed as discriminatory.
With the June 3 party primaries quickly approaching where the state’s newly minted voter identification law will be used for the first time, thus far no one has filed a lawsuit to challenge Mississippi’s newly minted law.
“Of course, anyone can still sue,” Hosemann said recently.
Enacting voter ID was blocked for years in the Legislature where many argued it would be a hindrance for the poor and for minorities – especially older African-Americans who lived through a time when Mississippi election laws blocked their voting rights.
Finally, in 2011, a voter ID requirement was placed on the ballot by a citizen-sponsored initiative drive. It was approved by 62 percent of the voters.
“This has been such a contentious issue for so long,” said Hosemann, a voter ID advocate.
Hosemann said that is why he has tried to work with divergent groups, including those who oppose voter ID, to ensure that the citizen-sponsored initiative was enacted in a fair way in Mississippi.
“I think Mississippi has designed a fair process for everyone,” Hosemann said. “It is really, I hope, closing a chapter so that we can trust each other in conducting our most basic right of voting. I think it is historic.”
Rickey Cole, executive director and chairman of the state Democratic Party, admitted that Hosemann has made an effort to work with his office.
Cole said he continues to believe requiring voter ID “is a solution in search of a problem. I think it is an unnecessary additional step on poll workers that can slow down the election process and might even cause confusion in the outcome.”
The confusion, he said, included the fact that a person who comes in without a photo ID can vote affidavit and still has up to five days after the election to return to the courthouse with an ID.
Despite the problems that could deter some people from voting, Cole said Hosemann has “done about as good a job as anybody could enacting a bad law. He has been very inclusive of our office.”
Cole said the state Democratic Party is not considering a lawsuit to try to block the enactment of the law for the party primaries that will include a hotly contested U.S. Senate election. But he did not rule out the possibility of other groups suing. He also said it is possible that groups might try to sue after the election, trying to prove that people were aggrieved during the process.
Thus far, it is estimated that more than 700 photo IDs have been given out at courthouses throughout the state to people who do not have other forms of ID – such as a driver’s license, student ID, a passport.
But Hosemann said he anticipates the requests from people who do not have ID will pick up as the primary election approaches.
Hosemann said the state has worked to eliminate all expense to the resident who needs to acquire an ID to vote. A person can call and get free transportation to the courthouse. And a process has been set up to verify free of charge a person’s birth certificate at the courthouse – a needed step to obtain the ID. Hosemann said people can get an ID on election day.
Thus far the Secretary of State’s office has spent more than $500,000 on voter ID on such items as advertising, outreach and installing the cameras in the courthouses.
Part of those funds were used to send out more than 1.5 million pieces of literature informing people of the voter ID requirement and to produce and air a television ad. Hosemann is particularly proud that the television commercial recently won two prestigious Bronze Telly awards, which are considered the gold standard in the national advertising industry.
“Regardless of your views and opinions on Voter ID, our goal was to educate and engage all citizens of our state in a light-hearted and entertaining way,” Hosemann said. “Our state has now been recognized nationally for our effort.”
The Legislature also has appropriated $645,000 for any court challenge to the law.
“If we can get past June 3, I will be very pleased to give back to the state that $645,000,” Hosemann said.