By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Once again, Mississippi finds itself in the nation’s crosshairs as it was in 1965 over restricting the right of its citizens, especially black citizens, to exercise their right to vote.
This time, Mississippi is going out of its way to thrust itself in the line of fire over disfranchising prospective voters. An initiative (No. 27) will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot proposing an amendment to the constitution requiring presentation of a “government-issued” photo ID at the polls in order to vote.
Keep government-issued ID in mind, because those are the particularly operative words in the ballot initiative. For at least 15 years, Republicans in the Legislature have tried, unsuccessfully, to pass legislation to install voter ID by law, contending such a law was needed to protect integrity of the ballot.
Ironically, no one has ever come up with an instance in Mississippi where a prospective voter has shown up at the polls and impersonated some other individual on the voting roll. Dating back to the 1869 state Constitution, before an individual can cast a vote he/she must sign the voter list – tantamount to an affidavit. Using a false name amounts to perjury carrying a five year prison sentence.
All GOP legislative proposals in the past laid out a list of ID’s that could be used – including passports and college student ID’s. This time, key GOP backers went for the initiative process to put Voter ID in the constitution.
Voter ID advocates contend people already use their driver license for identification in making purchases or other transactions, thus showing it at the polls would add no burden for the vast majority of citizens. Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, backing the Voter ID proposal, said in a debate with Johnny DuPree, his Democratic gubernatorial opponent, that those who have no driver’s license can go to the state Highway Patrol headquarters “and get an ID at no cost.”
I know for a fact that Bryant is absolutely wrong. My wife no longer drives and when we recently got a photo ID copy for her at the Patrol, it cost $14. Imagine some black single mother with three children who rides the city bus to her part time job having to shell out $14 to vote.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University has said in a study that as many as five million voters could be disfranchised by Voter ID provisions now being pushed in some 20 states because they do not have the types of photo ID required.
Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the revered civil rights icon, correctly wrote in an Aug. 26 New York Times op-ed column that a Republican-backed movement to install Voter ID laws or constitutional amendments in some two dozen states, is just a “poll tax by another name.”
A “black code” containing a series of voting traps – including a poll tax – to disfranchise thousands of newly-freed blacks was written into Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution by the so-called Democratic redeemers. The state’s poll tax provision – $2 per year for every vote – remained in effect until the 1960s when it, and other provisions in the black code, were knocked down by the federal courts.
In 1975, a group of amendments wiping all the voter trap wording was adopted. Now, should Initiative 27 be adopted, it potentially would add a new twist to the old black code.
But advocates of the initiative will find that the Nov. 8 vote is just the first in a long line of legal hurdles they face. Because of its history of discrimination again minority voters, Mississippi, under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, must submit for U.S. Justice Department pre-clearance any change in its voting laws. The state doesn’t have a very good batting average with Justice and it’s hard to believe that Initiative 27 would improve it.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.