Laughing Democrats best beware of voter ID boomerang

This opinion column appears in the March 17th Daily Journal newspaper. Give your opinion below.

JACKSON – Democrats here in the ornate Mississippi Capitol have been laughing up a storm because Republicans have been clamoring for voter identification legislation yet some of their own killed the best chance for the proposal to become law.

But Democrats would be wise not to laugh too much. Republicans still may have the last laugh over the volatile issue.

Senate Judiciary A Chairman Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, is the sponsor of a voter ID initiative. He will try to gather the required number of signatures to bypass the Legislature and place the issue on the ballot for voters to decide.

There are some fairly complex legal questions about whether Mississippi’s initiative process has been rendered invalid. The courts will hash those questions out over the coming weeks.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the courts will allow Fillingane and his supporters to go on with their initiative.

If that occurs, I would not want to be a Democrat running for office with a voter ID initiative on the ballot in either 2010 or 2011. Such a proposition on a statewide ballot could create pitfalls for Democrats.

Granted, many Democrats have gone on record in support of requiring a voter to show an identification before voting. The issue splits the party generally along racial lines.

But think about a potential Jim Hood candidacy for governor in 2011. If the Democratic attorney general doesn’t voice support for a voter identification initiative, it would hurt him with the vast majority of Mississippians who clearly support it.

But if he voices support, it could hurt him with the African-American political leaders who generally oppose voter ID. It would be difficult for a Democrat if black political leaders are not working for his or her victory.

Plus, a voter ID initiative has the potential to bring people to the polls who might not normally participate. These people would be more likely to vote Republican.

There is a long shot that Fillingane could gather the signatures in time to get the issue on the 2010 ballot. If that is the case, the Democrat probably most affected would be U.S. Rep. Travis Childers of Booneville.

The turnout is expected to be light anyway as Childers, an upset winner of the congressional post in 2008, vies for re-election.

A voter ID initiative could drive a lot of people to the polls during a year when Republicans will most likely go all-out to defeat Childers and regain the 1st District seat they believe is rightfully theirs.

Even if Childers comes out for voter ID, it still could hurt him because more potential Republican voters would flock to the polls to vote for the initiative.

Fillingane has said he did not have any of those scenarios in mind when he joined with other Republicans to kill voter ID legislation earlier this month. He said he voted to kill the legislation because it included provisions such as early voting that he opposed.

Fillingane is a veteran, smart legislator. He also is truthful.

He knows that normally members keep such legislation alive and work to take out provisions they find objectionable.

Fillingane said he voted to kill the entire bill because he feared those objectionable provisions would be added back and that there would be tremendous pressure to pass the entire proposal late in the session to finally get a voter ID law.

That makes some sense. But it should be pointed out Fillingane was later part of an unsuccessful effort to revive the very bill – objectionable parts and all.

In a sense it is difficult to understand why he and others voted to kill the bill one day and tried to revive it a few days later. The legislative process can be a complicated one.

What is easy to understand right now is that Democrats can say they voted to pass a voter ID bill and Republicans killed it.

But by the same token, Democrats may not want to face the prospect of dealing with voter ID on the election ballot.

So they shouldn’t laugh too loudly.

Contact Capitol Bureau Chief Bobby Harrison at bharrison@djournal.com or at (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison/Daily Journal