LLOYD GRAY: Initiatives gain focus

By Lloyd Gray | NEMS Daily Journal

Unlike some states, Mississippi doesn’t have much of a history voting on ballot initiatives. But this fall the three initiatives voters will decide on Nov. 8 may be drawing as much or more interest than the campaigns for statewide office.
The governor’s race between Phil Bryant and Johnny DuPree has been low-key and civil. Neither has seen any political advantage in attacking the other, so there have been no fireworks, and Bryant remains a heavy favorite.
No real contest exists for lieutenant governor, and more competitive down-ballot races don’t seem to have drawn a lot of voter attention.
But the initiatives have begun to take on a life of their own. “Clearly, the intensity has picked up in the last couple of weeks,” Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said in an interview with the Daily Journal last week.
That intensity is being generated by activists on both sides of three emotionally charged issues: Initiative 26, defining “personhood” from the moment of fertilization; Initiative 27, requiring voters to present government-issued photo identification at the polls; and Initiative 31, prohibiting the taking of private property at fair market value by the government – or eminent domain – for the purpose of transferring it to private interests.
While Mississippi has voted on significant constitutional amendments many times in the past, virtually all of them have been submitted to the voters by the Legislature. Since Mississippi enacted a law in the 1990s allowing citizens to gather a prescribed number of signatures to place an issue on the ballot, only one – legislative term limits – has been voted on, and it was defeated.
The early assumption on this year’s three initiatives is that they would all pass, likely by substantial margins. Passage still seems probable, but the opposition has mobilized.
While both sides of the personhood initiative have physicians in their camp, the state’s organized medical groups aren’t supporting it and have expressed concern about its unintended consequences. The pro-side is well organized and highly motivated – especially within conservative churches – but recent opposition rallies suggest the motivation works both ways.
Voter ID opponents, meanwhile, say requiring government-issued photo identification is an undue burden on elderly non-drivers and an attempt to discourage Democratic-leaning black voters from going to the polls. Hosemann counters with statistics of black voter participation rising after Georgia adopted voter ID, but race unfortunately still infuses the debate.
The eminent domain restrictions, meanwhile, would seem like a slam dunk, but the initiative is opposed by economic developers, many in the business community and, of course, Gov. Haley Barbour. The initiative’s driver, the Mississippi Farm Bureau, is a potent political force, however.
Not coincidentally, all of these initiatives – as was term limits in the 1990s – are part of national movements or trends. So, too, is the very concept of voter initiative itself. It’s relatively new to Mississippi, but its full-blown arrival has become the state’s most talked-about political event of the year.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.