SID SALTER: Bet on the feds to throttle state’s new voter ID laws

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – Set aside for a moment your actual opinion of whether or not Mississippi’s new voter ID laws are a necessary safeguard against voter fraud and consider only the fact that 2012 is year in which an incumbent Democrat is seeking re-election to the White House.
Consider, too, that Democratic President Barack Obama appointed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to lead the U.S. Justice Department, which continues to hold tremendous sway over election law in Mississippi through our state’s undeniable status as a “covered jurisdiction” under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “Covered jurisdiction” states, counties and municipalities cannot implement voting law changes without federal “preclearance” by the Justice Department.
States included in the “covered jurisdiction” by the Voting Rights Act include: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. There are also counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota as well as some cities in Michigan and New Hampshire that are included.
The Voting Right Act provided extensive federal oversight of elections administration in states with “a history of discriminatory voting practices.” Despite the passage of 46 years, the highest percentage of black voters in the country, and the largest number of black elected officials of any state in the union, Mississippi election law changes are still subject to federal preclearance.
In recent months, the U.S. Justice Department has blocked a new South Carolina law that requires voters to have photo identification, claiming that the law impedes the ability of minority voters to vote. In the most recent action in Texas, the Justice Department told Texas officials that Hispanic voters in that state are more than twice as likely than non-Hispanic voters to lack a driver’s license or personal state-issued photo ID and said Texas had failed to prove that the new law “has neither a discriminatory purpose nor effect.”
Back in November, Mississippi voters approved an initiative that requires voters to submit a photo ID in order to vote in a manner that already had survived U.S. Supreme Court scrutiny in 2008 in an appeal from a similar law in Indiana. The Supreme Court ruling in the Indiana case emboldened a number of states to adopt similar voter ID legislation. Over the last year, new voter ID laws have been enacted in Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin.
Expect the Justice Department to reject voter ID laws in all the Southern “covered jurisdiction” states. Why? Because the law empowers them to do so and it’s politically advantageous to the party in power. Those who fail to accept that the U.S. Justice Department is a political animal as much as a legal one are either naïve in the extreme or simply disingenuous.
When the Justice Department under former President George W. Bush in 2007 prosecuted Noxubee County Democratic Party Chairman Ike Brown for systematically violating white voters’ rights and disenfranchising white voters in Noxubee County in violation of the Voting Rights Act, Democrats howled about partisanship and politicization of election law enforcement by the Bush administration.
When Justice eventually torpedoes Mississippi’s voter ID law, Republicans will make the same accusations against the Obama administration. But as yet, Justice can’t kill Mississippi’s voter ID law until after the Legislature passes enabling legislation and the final voter ID plan is formally submitted by Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann to the Justice Department for federal preclearance.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.