By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – Before becoming secretary of state for Mississippi, Delbert Hosemann practiced law. Unlike others who seek office, the Republican now in his second term was not an in-your-face litigator. He was a detail man in a big Jackson firm. A consummate detail man. His job was to backstop the front-of-firm team, to get them ready to answer any arguments any adversary might raise.
He’s brought that same ducks-in-a-row approach to public service.
Hosemann’s current adversary is no less than U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Department of Justice.
A showdown looms.
Two years ago, 62 percent of Mississippians approved amending the state Constitution to require voters to produce photo identification before being allowed to cast a ballot in any election.
But there’s a hitch – a big hitch.
Because of this state’s history of not allowing (or violently discouraging) minority participation in elections, Congress, in adopting the Voting Rights Act of 1965, added special provisions for Mississippi and other, similar states in the South.
The provision says any notion of changing anything about any election in Mississippi cannot be put into effect until Department of Justice staffers gauge whether – and this is important – the change will marginalize or weaken the electoral voice of minority citizens.
No change in the nearly 50 years of “preclearance” history has been as emotional and divisive as voter ID.
Politics is not supposed to matter, but it rules.
Georgia submitted its voter ID law while George W. Bush was president. The Bush appointees OK’d Georgia’s law, which, by the way, has worked fine. There’s no evidence of any added hardship for minorities who wanted to vote.
Since Barack Obama has been president, Texas and South Carolina have submitted plans. Both were rejected by the Obama Justice Department. That brings us to Mississippi and the dossier Hosemann is preparing for Holder and his staff to pick apart.
That won’t be easy.
During November elections, Hosemann paid $34,000 of the $100,000 the Legislature gave him to prepare the state’s case on a New Jersey polling firm, Edison Research.
It what he called the largest and most scientific exit survey ever conducted, responses were collected from 5,965 voters after they cast their ballots. Of the total, 48 said they did not possess at least one of the eight forms of ID the state would accept.
The 48 and others in the same situation would not be told, “too bad, you can’t vote.”
At a press conference announcing the exit survey results, Hosemann also talked about a deal under which the Department of Transportation and circuit clerks statewide will provide free transportation and a free ID to anyone needing a voting card.
Another point – obscure in the data but relevant – is that statistically speaking there was virtually no difference between the number of whites and the number of minorities who did not have IDs on voting day. That matters because, again, legally speaking the Justice Department’s statutory duty is to shield minorities from schemes that put them at a disadvantage.
Objectively, there is no hard and fast evidence that (1) unpunished voter fraud is rampant or (2) that an ID requirement would discourage cheating or result in more cheaters being caught. Hosemann called such arguments a “total waste of time,” given that Mississippi voters have joined those in nearly 40 other states in saying an ID should be required when signing in to cast a ballot.
Subjectively, all the research and data, all the preparation is likely for naught, at least as far as the Justice Department is concerned.
“We should be approved by the Department of Justice,” Hosemann said. “We’ve earned that.” But the aroma of politics is no less potent today than it was for the Georgia, Texas and South Carolina decisions.
If the state’s petition is denied, Hosemann will take the case to federal court. The state will likely win at that point. Again, not because voter ID will fix anything that’s broken – but because the state’s electorate chose a detail man to be secretary of state.
For whatever objections are raised, Delbert Hosemann will have reasoned, solid, data-driven answers.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.