By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Perhaps it was providential that in going through my political memorabilia I came across one of my old poll tax receipts. Maybe it will be useful if the so-called “ballot integrity” police get their way.
No, they say, poll tax receipts will be out, but government-issued photo ID will be in. The ballot police say it’s a crisis and we need a picture perfect populace at the polls to stop it. But where’s the crisis?
Evidently we can’t any longer trust the age-old system having to sign (and print) their names on a voting list at the polling place in order to cast a ballot. Signing a false name is perjury, for which you can get five years in jail.
This is serious stuff, because it impinges on the most coveted constitutional right of United States citizens. That’s why, thankfully, policy makers down here in this deep South state can’t play by their own rules.
Mississippi some 150 years ago had to be dragged kicking and screaming back into the Union of States, and was required to recognize black people as full citizens. Then the state spent decades devising and enacting all sorts of laws dealing with the franchise, aimed at suppressing voting or office-holding by African American citizens. Either the federal courts or the U.S. Congress knocked down each of the state’s voting rights restrictions. The 24th amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified in 1964 specifically banned poll taxes to vote.
It seems unthinkable that in this state, with its history of disenfranchising blacks, some Mississippi policy-makers – ambitious Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann leading the way – would now try to slip into the state Constitution a disguised new poll tax by requiring citizens to present a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot. This stems from the Nov. 8 adoption of a ballot initiative purporting to insert it in the state constitution.
Meantime, the provision is a long way from being made part of the constitution because it first runs to the U.S. Department of Justice. The 1965 Voting Rights law specifically barred states in the old Confederacy with a history of discrimination against black citizens from making any change in voting laws without pre-clearance by DOJ. Two weeks ago, South Carolina’s even milder Voter ID law was rejected by Justice in a ruling that said it would adversely affect “tens of thousands” of minority voters.
Documents submitted by South Carolina estimated 82,000 registered minority voters lacked the required IDs but said the state was prepared to issue free identifications. Hosemann nor other officials have said how many Mississippi voters lacked necessary ID but said the state would provide them. However, there is no legislation on the books to do that. (An unofficial cost analysis by the Legislative Budget Office estimated the Mississippi Highway Patrol would need at least $1.5 million to provide free photos for 105,000 persons.)
An 1896 opinion by the state Supreme Court in a test case over the intent of the poll tax in the 1890 Constitution removed all doubt that its purpose was to disenfranchise blacks. Quoting from the opinion, the court said the provision “was primarily intended … as a clog upon the franchise.” Sounds pretty clear that rather than “ballot integrity,” the Voter ID scheme is “ballot intimidation.”
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.