OPINION: Voter registration initiative aims at 2010 1st District race

JACKSON – The announcement Monday by the Mississippi Republican Party of an all-out, statewide effort to garner the signatures needed to get a voter identification initiative on the 2010 election ballot is aimed directly at Northeast Mississippi, the 1st Congressional District and U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, D-Booneville.
Obviously, Northeast Mississippi is in the 1st Congressional District, which is represented by Childers – a prime target of Republicans who are looking nationwide for vulnerable Democrats to attempt to knock off in the 2010 elections.
The 1st District seat was held for about 13 years by Republicans before Childers captured the seat last year. The 2010 election will be viewed as a watershed event. If Childers holds the seat, he most likely will have it for a long time – basically as long as he wants. If he is going to be defeated, it most likely will be in his bid for re-election to a second full two-year term.
A voter identification initiative has the potential to be problematic for Childers in his re-election effort and a boost for any Republican opponent – most likely state Sen. Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo.
Since 2010 is an off-election year with no statewide candidate – such as president, senator or governor – and no hot local races on the ballot, turnout is expected to be low.
The contentious issue of voter identification could play a substantial role in driving up turnout. It is probable that a voter identification initiative on the ballot would increase turnout among those who would support the Republican candidate.
Voter ID has been a hot button issue for years. It has created much debate, racial tension and occasional hard feelings in the Mississippi Legislature.
At various times voter identification proposals have passed both chambers of the Legislature, but never in the same form. In years when it passed both chambers, no compromise could be reached between the differing versions of the legislation.
While it has passed both chambers on rare occasions, in most years voter ID has passed the Senate, but has been killed in the House.
But ironically, during the 2009 session a voter identification proposal, which also included provisions for early voting and other election-related items, passed the House with the support of Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann. It was viewed as an attempt at compromise. Give the Republicans the voter identification they so desire and give the Democrats the early voting they want.
But the proposal was killed in a Senate committee by a handful of Republicans, who said they opposed early voting and other provisions of the voter identification proposal.
Normally, such proposals are sent to a conference committee where key leaders from both chambers try to hammer out a compromise.
But the handful of Republicans, supported by Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, said they did not even want to discuss the other issues, thus killing voter ID even though the proposal was as close to going to the governor as it has ever been in the legislative process.
Now Republicans are hoping to garner the roughly 100,000 signatures of registered voters needed through the initiative process to bypass the Legislature and have the issue placed on the election ballot.
And if they can do it while at the same time putting an incumbent Democratic congressman at a disadvantage, that’s even better.
The trick, though, is whether Republicans can gather the signatures.
In Mississippi, the initiative process is cumbersome and burdensome. Only two issues have reached the ballot – both dealing with term limits. And both times, the voters rejected the proposals to limit the terms of elected officials.
Conventional wisdom and polls indicate that if voter identification gets to the ballot it will pass.
To get the issue on the November 2010 ballot, the signatures must be obtained by Oct. 1, 2009. To get it on the November 2011 ballot, they must be garnered by Feb. 14, 2010. If that is not done, the sponsors, led by Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, must scrap the effort and start anew.
Contact Capitol Bureau Chief Bobby Harrison at bobby.harrison@djournal.com or at (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal