By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Why do some Mississippi officials want to turn back the clock and revive one of the Jim Crow laws from the post-Civil War “black code” that was installed to suppress newly emancipated blacks from voting?
They can’t bring back the notorious “understanding” clause in the 1890 Constitution’s requirement for voter registration, so they’ve retrofitted the old poll tax, re-branding it as protecting “ballot integrity.” The so-called integrity requires voters to show a government issued photo ID at the polls. It’s more than coincidental that voter photo ID measures are being pushed in more than a dozen states where Republicans control state legislatures.
What problem are they trying to stamp out? No one can point to a case of a person intentionally misrepresenting himself to vote in Mississippi.
Deservedly so, Mississippi will squarely be in the crosshairs’ of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protects citizens from voter suppression under any law changes by states or local governments.
Yet to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice is the ballot initiative adopted last November attempting to put government-issued photo voter ID in the state constitution. Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, the chief advocate for the initiative, has been making noises as though he would represent the state before DOJ. That won’t happen. The 1965 Voting Rights Act clearly states the state’s chief legal officer – the attorney general – would represent the state.
However, before DOJ will even consider Mississippi’s photo ID issue, the Legislature must pass statutes implementing the ballot initiative. (Remember, appended to the Initiative No. 27 was language that the state would issue free IDs to anyone needing one? The cost was estimated to be $1.5 million. No such bill has appeared in the 2012 session.)
Rather than spending his time cheerleading for photo ID as a corrective for a problem that doesn’t exist, Hosemann as state elections officer could very well devote his time pushing county election authorities to clear the notorious thousands of “phantom” voters still carried on county voter rolls.
Former Secretary of State Eric Clark, now commissioner of community colleges, recalls that 44 counties had bloated registration rolls until he began pressing county election officials in 1999 to clean up their voter lists. Just prior to the 2008 presidential election, an Associated Press analysis showed 29 counties still had more names on their voter rolls than voting age citizens based on 2000 census figures.
The 2010 federal census figures show a similar story. Comparing the 2008 statewide registered voter count by county with 2010 federal census figures, I found that voter roll figures in 26 counties were greater than voting age citizens in the county. Another eight counties were suspect because their registration numbers were only a handful less than actual population figures.
Remember, under Mississippi’s system, elected county election commissioners are responsible for purging rolls of dead people or those who no longer live in the county. Unless they do their duty, “phantom” voters stay on the rolls. All 82 counties didn’t have computerized registration lists until 2002 when Congress – in response to the bungled vote count in the 2000 presidential election – passed and funded HAVA (Help Americans Vote Act). Each county’s voter rolls were plugged into the computer system in the secretary of state’s office. However, unless the secretary of state pushes counties to keep up with death notices and address changes they won’t purge deadwood from their rolls.
Two weeks ago the Pew Center on the States reported that voter rolls nationwide had names of 1.8 million dead people listed as active voters. Pew’s report added that some 2.8 million people had active registrations in more than one state.
Yale law professor Heather Gerken, viewing the Pew report, pointed out that the U.S. is the only modern democracy which does not have a central registry of eligible voters. “It is a silly way to run a railroad,” she commented. And she hasn’t seen Mississippi’s slapdash system.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.