And in recent years, probably no issue has been more divisive and has undergone more twists and turns.
But the issue might be decided once and for all – at least for the immediate future – not by the Legislature, but by the voters. A proposal requiring people to display a state-issued photo identification before voting will be on Tuesday’s ballot.
The initiative was sponsored by state Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, with strong backing of the Mississippi Republican Party in garnering the about 90,000 signatures of registered voters needed to put it on the ballot.
If Initiative 27 passes Tuesday, like all citizen-sponsored initiatives, it will become an amendment to the state Constitution.
“I think it is an issue that needs to be on the ballot and that the people need to have a vote,” said Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, who has been an advocate of voter ID for many years. “It will either pass or be put to rest.”
Formby believes the initiative will be passed by an overwhelming margin. Rep. Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs, said the proposal will do more harm than good.
Buck said the voter identification requirement will put an extra burden on the elderly, working people and the poor – many of whom may not have a driver’s license and will have to make time to go to a Department of Public Safety location to obtain an ID.
“In Marshall County, we can’t get a driver’s license,” he said. “We have to go somewhere else.”
No issue in the Legislature through the years has inspired more racial tension than voter identification. Some, especially the state Republicans, have maintained voter identification is needed to prevent voter fraud and preserve the integrity of the ballot. Voter ID proponents maintain that people have to display an ID for numerous purposes, from boarding an airplane to cashing a check, and voting should be no different.
Opponents counter that voting is a right and not a privilege like boarding a plane or cashing a check.
Black legislators also express concern about how the ID requirement would be viewed by many elderly blacks who can remember a time when the state took steps to prevent them from voting.
Sue Harmon of MoveOn.org, in a argument against the vote ID initiative, refers to it as “a modern day poll tax” and said some people who might not have proper documentation, such as a birth certificate, will have to pay to obtain a copy from the state in order to get a photo ID from the Department of Public Safety.
The Legislative Budget Office has put the cost to the state of voter ID at about $1.5 million per year. The estimate is based on the fact that in fiscal year 2010 DPS issued 107,049 photo IDs to voting-age people at $14 per issuance. DPS will no longer be able to charge for the IDs, based on federal court rulings.
At one point, legislative Republicans were trying to pass an ID requirement that would allow people to use such items as utility bills as the ID. In several instances, voter ID passed the Senate but died in the House Apportionment and Elections Committee.
One year, the House passed an ID requirement, but after several hours of emotional debate by black members enough white Democrats changed their votes to kill the legislation.
In 2009, it appeared legislative leaders had reached a compromise that would exempt those born before a certain date from the ID requirement and would have enacted provisions to allow early voting. The compromise had the blessing of Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a vocal advocate for voter ID, but a group of Republicans killed the compromise in the Senate Elections Committee.They said they opposed early voting.
At that point, Fillinagne, one of the Republicans who killed the attempt at the compromise, opted to pursue the initiative process.
Hosemann said voter ID will help eliminate fraud. But Buck said the instances of fraud he has heard about, such as through absentee ballots and through outright vote-buying, would not be solved with an ID requirement.
“Voter ID is not a solution to a problem,” he said. “It is a solution looking for a problem.”
But Hosemann recently said, “A commonsense voter ID to enforce the integrity of the voting for every Mississippian makes sense.”