LLOYD GRAY: Voter ID’s detour was all about politics

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

It’s now official: Voter ID will be on the ballot in the November 2011 general election in Mississippi. It almost assuredly will pass by a wide margin and become a part of the state Constitution.
In subsequent elections, Mississippi voters will present photo identification at the polls, and after getting used to it, nobody will give it much thought.
For the better part of two decades, voter ID has been one of the most divisive issues in Mississippi, with echoes from the state’s troubled racial history, and getting it settled will be a relief. But it will have been a circuitous route that took longer than it should have for – surprise! – starkly political reasons.
After years of acrimony on the issue, the Mississippi House – the traditional graveyard of voter ID – passed a compromise bill that included provisions for early voting and an exemption on the ID requirement for elderly voters. It was a landmark bipartisan turnaround, reflecting concessions from all House factions, including black legislators who had long fought voter ID because, they argued, it harkened back to the days when intimidation of black voters at the polls was common in Mississippi.
When the bill got to the Senate, longtime voter ID supporters, including Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, suddenly decided to call a halt to its legislative progress and instead devote their attention to gathering signatures statewide to get it on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. They used the provisions for early, pre-election day voting in the House bill – already allowed in 32 states – as the excuse for letting the legislation die without even attempting to negotiate with the House.
Support of voter ID had always been good politics for Republicans, and it was clear that at least some of the momentum behind the push to get it on a statewide ballot had to do with helping Republican candidates. Those motivated by the presence of a voter ID initiative on the ballot would likely be inclined to vote Republican, so the extra turnout it might produce could be valuable.
That might especially have been the case in the 1st Congressional District if signature gatherers could have met the deadline to get voter ID on the November 2010 ballot, when incumbent Democrat Travis Childers will be up for re-election against a Republican nominee and a host of independent and third-party candidates. Much of the speculation when the signature push began was that it was targeted at the Childers race.
But the Mississippi initiative process is cumbersome and those circulating the petitions were unable to get enough signatures in time for this year’s ballot. So they will settle for 2011 – a statewide election in which every county, district and state office will be up for grabs. Validation of an adequate number of signatures came last week from Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.
On the face of it, voter ID seems a simple, logical step, one that’s hard to mount a convincing argument against. But nothing is ever really simple, or for that matter, logical in this state that is so haunted by its past.
In the 1980s, when it was first advanced as a means of combating voter fraud, there were still hundreds of thousands of black voters in Mississippi who had experienced the anti-black voter tactics of the 1960s and who couldn’t be faulted for having some anxiety or suspicion about any slow-down mechanisms at the polls.
But as the decades have passed, and Mississippi has elected more black officials than any state in the nation, reasons for such suspicions have subsided and many of that generation are no longer with us. Even more important, perhaps, is that producing photo identification has become so common for so many things, it’s hard to argue that asking for it at the polls could be seen as harassment.
The voter fraud that exists in Mississippi is primarily the result of absentee ballot abuse, not voters showing up at the polls claiming to be someone else. But voter ID is a simple, easily understood concept whose value is more symbolic than anything.
We will have it in Mississippi after 2011, barring an unforeseen turnaround in public sentiment. It would have been nice if instead of injecting it into the heat of a political campaign, legislators could have seized the opportunity to achieve it as a rare example of bipartisan, biracial compromise.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.