The Politics of Voter ID

Photos by Adam Lynch and Kate Medley

Candidates tend to look for issues to separate themselves from their opponents. It's a tough order in conservative Mississippi, where many nominees on both sides of the political spectrum agree on many of the same issues.

For the last four years, however, Republicans have secured a wedge issue in the argument over voter ID. The crusade is most obvious in the battle for state secretary of state, where Republican Delbert Hosemann says he is pushing hard to make ID a requirement in the state.

The Jackson business attorney has pledged to "finally make voter identification a reality and stop election fraud," as a major leg of his campaign platform. Hosemann said he will "work with the Legislature to break the stalemate and pass an effective and constitutional voter identification bill."

The candidate explains on his Web site that state law excludes "non-residents, deceased voters, certain felons … and the mentally incompetent," and said that if he runs the secretary of state's office in 2008, he will "maintain one central complete voter identification system," and "notify all counties about persons to potentially purge from the rolls and guarantee registration of only qualified Mississippi voters."

Hosemann's Democratic opponent, Rob Smith of Brandon, is not so driven to tie voters to their driver's licenses.

"The big issue we have in this state is not voter fraud, at least not the kind that can be fixed by bringing your ID with you. The biggest problem this state has is the fact that only a fraction of the population goes to the polls to vote," Smith said.

"Turnout at election time is lower in Mississippi than many other states in the nation, and my plan, when secretary of state, is to get as many new voters in on the election process as possible."

But Hosemann said the issue is popular among Mississippians. His campaign released polling data from Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm in Alexandria, Va., saying 90 percent of polled Mississippians favor the idea of some form of identification presented at the polls.

A breakdown of the poll numbers show 76 percent strongly favor voters showing either a driver's license or a utility bill, while 14 percent somewhat favor it. Four percent somewhat oppose it, and another 4 percent strongly oppose it. One percent classified themselves in the "don't know' category.

The same poll, claiming to draw from a pool of 37 percent Republicans, 32 percent Democrats and 25 percent independents, found that 86 percent believe voter fraud is a problem in the state, while just 8 percent don't. Six percent "don't know."

Derrick Johnson is president of the Mississippi NAACP, which opposes voter ID. He says passing an ID requirement would likely disenfranchise black voters, who do not overwhelm the polls at election time as it is. Johnson said the poll, while measuring popularity, says nothing on appropriateness.

"Polling data reflects the attitude of a population at a certain time, and it does not make it good public policy or the correct thing to do. History has always showed us that," Johnson said. "There was a time when 97 percent of the population would have agreed with slavery, and it was wrong then, as voter ID is wrong today."

On Old Idea, Rehashed
The idea of linking a vote at a polling booth with the requirement to show ID is not new to the state. There were a total of 11 bills in both the House and Senate in 2007, all devised to require some form of ID at the polling booth. Every one of them, from HB309 to SB2700, died in committee, killed by legislators who feared the ID requirement would intimidate their voting base into staying home at election time.

Dirk Dedeaux, D-Perkinston, is a member of the House Apportionment and Elections Committee who remembers the first firestorm the issue sparked.

"The issue came up four years ago in the legislative session. It was just an amendment to an apportionment bill, but I remember the debate was so heated and intense that it went way into the night," Dedeaux said. "It turned out that members of the House, especially those from the black community, felt voter ID was something that could be used locally to intimidate voters. "The argument was that if it's arbitrarily enforced in a state with Mississippi's history of voter exclusion, that it could be used more strictly in some precincts than others, and the confusion it could cause might be just enough discouragement to stop people from voting, or reduce turnout in certain areas of the state."

Johnson of the NAACP said the requirement could be too easily wielded as a method of precision disenfranchisement.

"You have to ask if it could disproportionately impact individuals who are more vulnerable. There have been cases where a senior citizen with no state ID … had missed her election because the only place that would issue ID was maybe two counties away from her, and she had no transportation. Then there's the example of the kids who attend Morehouse University. They couldn't use their college ID to vote, but the kids at Georgia State could use their ID," Johnson said.

The Republican Party, led by Gov. Haley Barbour, is pushing for a statewide front embracing the idea.

Barbour said during the last legislative session that he was waiting in the outfield to catch any good voter-identification bills that survived the House and Senate process. His pen was eager to sign something, and he issued statements approving the occasional bill that would stick a desperate head above the water before sinking back down into oblivion.

"I want to thank members of the Mississippi Senate for passing a strong voter ID bill to help ensure fair and honest elections in Mississippi," Barbour said in a 2007 reference to doomed SB 2617, one of the 11 bills that died in committee. "The Senate's action is a strong statement that a comprehensive voter ID law is necessary to combat fraud in our electoral process, and I encourage the Mississippi House to take up and pass the bill very soon."

Lieutenant governor candidate Phil Bryant has taken a place at Barbour's side, also vowing to push for voter ID legislation if he is elected over Democrat opponent Jamie Franks in the November election.

Bryant said as much at his only public "debate" against Franks this year, slipping in a promise to "pass voter ID" legislation to "clean up elections."

"That's just something we need to do," Bryant inserted behind unrelated statements regarding insurance problems on the Gulf Coast.

Bryant's campaign even accuses his opponent of voting "against a comprehensive voter ID program to clean up election fraud," without mentioning that Franks voted for a voter ID bill in 2004 that exempted senior citizens.

Barbour called the bill pointless if it excluded seniors. "It makes no sense to exclude people over the age of 65 because this group is more vulnerable for the potential of voter fraud," Barbour's press secretary Pete Smith told the Jackson Free Press.

"Voter ID is not about intimidation; it is simply about integrity and having a fair and honest election."

That bill arose during a 2004 special session addressing voter ID and non-economic damage caps, but Barbour ended the session after the Legislature handed him a 2004 tort reform bill to sign.

Republicans attest repeatedly to countless episodes of voter fraud. In 2004, when asked for Barbour's evidence that voter ID is necessary in Mississippi, press secretary Smith responded: "The governor says that in his hometown of Yazoo there are more people on the voter roll than (who live) in the county. That does it for me right there."

However, the U.S. Census Bureau reported then that Yazoo County had a population of 28,199 with 20,163 being of voting age. The Yazoo Circuit Clerk's office currently totaled the county voter rolls at 17,545.

Ike Brown Everywhere?
Proven cases of voter fraud involving ID theft at the polls are hard to find. One incident, though, was clear in the case of Ike Brown and the Noxubee County Democratic Executive Committee, in which U.S. District Judge Tom Lee ruled that Brown regularly violated the rights of white voters in Noxubee County. Lee recorded an incident from a witness in his June 2007 opinion on the case: "Kendrick Slaughter testified that during the 2005 Macon election, he saw Ike Brown outside the door of the precinct talking to a young black lady named Bridgette Brown, and heard him tell her to go in there and vote, to use any name, and that no one was going to say anything. Slaughter reported this incident to the Justice Department."

Beyond this incident—which has given Republicans a new nickname for voter ID opponents: "Ike Brown Democrats"—the pro-ID side still falters when asked for evidence of rampant voter fraud rather than a rehash of the Brown case in which the fraud was exposed and stopped under current laws.

Hosemann, who has been running on a campaign to clean up the state elections since the beginning of the year, states no particular case, referring instead to phrases like "people have told me…" and "folks have said…." Barbour, with all the resources of the state's information gathering systems on speed dial, also produces no example beyond Brown in his press releases. Bryant—the state auditor, no less—pulls little from his pocket beyond anecdotes.

Secretary of State spokesman Kell Smith said the secretary's office had no record of voter fraud to which to refer. The attorney general's office, the policing arm behind the secretary of state's voter fraud division, also offers paltry figures regarding reported cases.

From 2004 to the present, Attorney General Jim Hood says, the attorney general's office has conducted 38 voter fraud investigations. Hood said almost all of them, "about 99 percent," are absentee issues.

Hosemann doesn't need a slew of documents to justify his crusade, however. He told the Sun-Herald that he's tired of hearing stories about people selling absentee ballots.

Apportionment and Elections Committee Chairman Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, agrees with Hosemann's statement that absentee ballots form the brunt of voter problems, but added that absentee ballots, by definition, require no poll appearance. Voter identification, therefore, would do nothing to counter such fraud.

"The absentee ballot is one of the worst problem areas with our voting. That's where the wheels are really falling off, but I think this issue is more a political thing than anything," Reynolds said.

"We proposed a pilot program in Lafayette County so people could come in and vote weeks ahead of the official election date—anything that will increase people voting in person rather than voting absentee—but that bill died. We had a bill that the House passed three times, but the Senate did not pass it. It's become a very partisan issue, and when partisanship comes in, wise decision-making leaves."

Reynolds said he has even encouraged bills allowing same-day voter registration on Election Day, noting the incredible boon to voter turn-out the arrangement could spark, particularly among new voters and voters under the age of 30. That idea, for some reason, is not catching on among his comrades, he said.

A Question of State's Rights
The U.S. district court is pushing forward with an order demanding the state Legislature ratify a new law making identification a voting requirement, despite the Legislature's inability to come to a voter ID consensus in years past.

Democrats in 2006 argued that many Republicans were "crossing over" to vote for more conservative Democrats in Democratic primaries. Conservative Democrats like Sen. Scottie Cuevas, D-Pass Christian, and Rep. Jeffrey Smith, D-Columbus, fill the state Legislature, voting along Republican Party lines and frustrating Democratic coalitions.

Looking to protect progressive incumbents from conservative-leaning Republican voters, the state party filed a lawsuit in 2006 seeking to require voters to register by party in a closed primary system. U.S. District Judge Allen Pepper, an old college roommate of Republican U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, agreed.

Pepper decided in June 2007 to require voters to register by party, either as Republican, Democrat or unaffiliated—but also demanded that voters show identification when casting a ballot.

The decision had knickers twisted all over the state, alarming both Republicans and Democrats who complained that it forced voters in both parties to re-register—an impossible feat before the 2007 primaries. Pepper delayed the re-registration until 2008, though the case still faces opposition and now sits in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The question of voter disenfranchisement remains an issue in the decision, despite judicial backing. The NAACP and Attorney General Jim Hood filed a motion to stay the pending appeal, citing that "no other court in a case similar to this has ordered voter identification as a remedy," and that "voter identification is not necessary to enforce the Constitution or cure the particular constitutional violation that exists in this type of case."

"Plaintiffs only asked that there be some mechanism in place to limit participation in primary elections to those who identify themselves as Democrats. They never suggested that there is a problem with Republicans voting in the primaries under the assumed names of those who are Democrats. There is also no evidence that widespread fraud of the type where people vote under assumed names has been a problem in recent Mississippi elections."

The NAACP appeal also claims "there will be irreparable harm if the orders are not stayed," because the Legislature will be forced to act upon a year's long-debated issue with unnatural speed, nullifying organizations' and citizens' influence upon the legislative process.

"This Court should not coerce the state Legislature into such a sweeping change in electoral practices when that change is unnecessary to cure the violation found by this court, and the case should be reviewed on appeal before the Legislature is pressured to do so," the appeal said.

State's rights advocates have traditionally met this caliber of judicial activism with ferocity in the past. The voices of segregation that raged against similar moves by activist judges in the past are muted today, however.

Hood marvels at the overwhelming silence, and the inconsistency.

"My point—and the right-wingers ought to agree with me—is that we don't want a federal judge dictating what our Legislature can and cannot do. We oppose it for the right reasons today. In years past, they did it for racial reasons, but it's still a state's rights issue," Hood said.

Hood added that Judge Pepper knew he was on shifty ground when he first ordered the ID requirement.

"There's absolutely zero case law anywhere in the nation that requires photo identification," Hood said. "The federal judge doesn't have authority to tell us how to do it, because there's no case anywhere in the nation to support his position that he has the authority to tell us what kind of identification, or to tell us even if we want to have it."

Hood believes that Pepper realized his hastiness prior to his amendment to the original decision. In his initial opinion, Pepper demanded that voters produce photo ID. Federal law initiated by the Help American Vote Act, makes no case for photo ID, however. In fact, federal law allows several options for non-photo ID, including firearm permits, current utility bills, current bank statements, current paychecks or government checks.

"When we asked him to re-evaluate or reconsider his first ruling, he backed up, because he knew we had him," said Hood. "We said, 'Wait a minute, you said in your first opinion that we have got to have voter identification by photo. Did you really mean that?' And when he wrote his second opinion he backed off that and said 'OK, fine, some kind of identification, then.'"

Target: Immigrants
The argument for identification at the polls comes more easily, perhaps, with a foreign face attached to it.

Bryant was one of the most vociferous opponents of illegal immigration during the Republican primary. The auditor released a study last year, "The Impact of Illegal Immigration on Mississippi: Costs and Population Trends," which found that the state spent $25 million a year on health care, education and prison costs for illegal immigrants.

The report, citing Census information and data collected from state agencies, subtracted estimated annual state costs for illegal immigrants' health care, public safety and education (about $69 million) from illegal immigrants' annual contributions in sales and income tax (about $44 million).

Jim Gilchrist, the Californian co-founder of the Minuteman Project, a civilian group that patrols the U.S./Mexican border, felt strongly enough about the report and Bryant's position to endorse the auditor in his lieutenant governor race.

"What impressed me the most was that Mr. Bryant had a very visible, proactive historical record of dealing with this issue of chaotic illegal alien invasion," Gilchrist told the Laurel Leader-Call.

Bryant is pushing a platform looking to chase illegal immigration particularly hard as lieutenant governor, including "prohibiting contractors or vendors who do business with the state from hiring illegal immigrants," "requiring a valid Mississippi driver's license to purchase a car tag, and "requiring the state to keep documentation about the number of illegal immigrants apprehended," among other methods.

The state auditor applies the same exclusion to the voting booth. Like Bryant, Hosemann has promised to push for legislation that will restrict undocumented immigrant workers from voting.

"We need to do what we can to make sure that only Mississippi citizens can put Mississippi officials into public office," Hosemann told the JFP at a political gathering in Neshoba County.

At the time, Hosemann was running in the Republican primary against Republican Rep. Mike Lott, who was also pushing hard to boot the ubiquitous sombrero from Mississippi's voting lines.

Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance spokesman Erik Fleming called the proposals "unfounded."

"MIRA is working hard just to get immigrants to be vocal about their working conditions, and that's hard for them to do when they're undocumented. They just don't want to be exposed. If they're not willing to do that for their rights as employees, surely they're not going out there and risking their chances of being deported by going to a polling booth," Fleming said.

"For Delbert or somebody who's supposed to be an intellectual to resort to this kind of campaigning is shameful and embarrassing."

Fleming equated the tactic to a similar method used to disenfranchise blacks during the years of segregation.

"It's the same old tactic that was used 40 years ago when African Americans were emerging as a political force. Anything to try to discourage that and rally those forces based on fear, that's what the Republicans do. It's a shame because I know a lot of them, and I know a lot of them are a lot more intelligent than that."

The alienation tactic could hurt Republicans in a few decades, if state population trends continue. Census information catalogued the state's Hispanic population at 1.6 percent, and identified it as the fastest growing population in the state.

The number of Mississippi Hispanics more than doubled from 15,931 in 1990 to almost 40,000 in 2000. Latino advocates say the numbers are likely much higher because undocumented immigrant workers tend to avoid people with clipboards, even Census workers.

With more Latinos come more Latino voters, said Fleming, adding that MIRA helps register new Latino voters every year.

"The Latino population is an emerging force in Mississippi politics in the upcoming decades. Republicans' behavior, this shift of theirs to limit their platforms to the priorities of what could soon be a minority population, will be a major problem for them 20 years down the road if they don't get smart," Fleming said.

Previous Comments

ID
68139
Comment

Several blogs, including TPMCafe, are linking to this story.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2007-10-22T12:08:08-06:00
ID
68140
Comment

I think this voter ID thing is just a a way to disenfranchise minority voters. The supporters keep talking about fraud, but can't really come up with solid evidence. The whole debate is a fraud itself.

Author
golden eagle
Date
2007-10-22T12:48:06-06:00
ID
68141
Comment

golden eagle--= The supporters keep talking about fraud, but can't really come up with solid evidence. And I used to make that argument myself until I worked in the SoS elections division. But if that's not enough for you: Clarion-Ledger With less than three weeks left before the Nov. 6 general election, Jefferson Davis County voters still don't know which candidate will be on the ballot for circuit clerk. Langley challenged the results based on the following claims, according to court documents: James Barnes, who died in February 2006, apparently voted in the primary. His signature appears on the receipt book for Precinct 31 in Bassfield, which is the precinct in which Thompson lives. Stanley Dwayne Echols' signature appeared on the Precinct 31 receipt book indicating he had voted. However, his mother testified he was in the hospital at the time of the primary. Whoever signed Echols' name also misspelled it as "Stanely." "This misspelling is direct evidence of a forged signature," Langley said in a court document. But I'm sure this will be poo-pooed as well....

Author
Rex
Date
2007-10-23T08:17:14-06:00
ID
68142
Comment

This is one of those issues I guess I'll never understand. I show an ID to get a video at Blockbuster, to check out a library book or to buy a bottle of wine. Good grief, this is the 21st century. Are there really legal citizens out there who don't have some sort of official ID that they can show at the polls? I personally think we should all have some kind of encrypted ID that we could use to vote online anyway. Driving to a polling place seems very "old world" with today's technology.

Author
James Hester
Date
2007-10-23T19:59:31-06:00
ID
68143
Comment

There needs to be voter ID to prevent fraud. Ike Brown didn't invent voter fraud, he just put a real name and face to it. He can't be the only one in the whole state of Mississippi doing it.

Author
Cliff Cargill
Date
2007-10-24T05:13:53-06:00
ID
68144
Comment

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Author
Rex
Date
2007-10-24T08:33:18-06:00
ID
68145
Comment

This is an issue I haven't studied enough to give competent commentary. Of course, I won't let that stop me, or the fact that I have to leave town for a few days. Smile. On one hand I don't see much wrong with asking for an ID. On the other hand, I'm learning fast that lots of poor, uneducated and down-trotten people don't have ID's for a variety of resons that has nothing to do with pasts or histories that keep them legally from voting. I'd like to safequard against fraud or cheating of any nature and kind. However, I don't want to see anyone deneid the right to vote because of the lack of an ID card. If I haven't said it before, Ike Brown did apparently get caught cheating at the polls. I believe he still disputes it, but he has been ruled as engaging in improper conduct nevetheless. I read parts of the case to see what he really did. I know Ike Brown. I watched him and other bold upper classmen intent of fixing past wrongs walking around the college campus and talking about things they wouldn't continue to accept or tolerate. Frankly, as a freshman I was a little bit scared of them all. Luckily, they liked me because I eventually ventured close enough to hear some of their conversations. Ike, like many of them, was terribly hurt and angered by the cheating and mistreatment they saw routinely in Mississippi and particularly in places like Canton, Macon and the Mississippi Delta where Black folks usually were the majority but lost every election. Furthermore, like many, he sought to neutralize or fix some of it his own way and got caught. My impression of him is unchanged but I hope he follows the laws and rules of voting during the rest of his crusade to ensure black folks are never disenfranchised and cheated again like in the past.

Author
Ray Carter
Date
2007-10-24T09:09:15-06:00

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