Secretary of State Eric Clark is shipping out this year after more than 10 years in office. His departure opens a rift in what might have otherwise been one of the few safe seats in statewide elections, so it's not surprising that seven candidates are jumping at the chance to grab it.
Democrats facing each other in the primaries include Richland resident Robert "Rob" Smith, Jackson's own John Windsor and Jabari Toins. Republicans squaring off include Jackson resident Delbert Hosemann, Crystal Springs resident Gene Sills, Starkville resident Jeffrey Rupp and Mike Lott of Petal.
ID the Aliens!
Lott, 51, is one of the leaders of the House Conservative Coalition. Lott said he felt he was qualified for the position because of his legislative experience, and said his record speaks for itself.
"I'm the best qualified for that position," Lott said. "Anything we do, whether it's voter ID, or changing our registration, or (dealing with) 16 Section land is going to take legislative changes, more than likely, and I'm the only candidate with current leadership roles in the Legislature. I can bring both parties together in the House. I'll be representing all voters. Even those who aren't affiliated with a party. Why would you want to put somebody in office who you're going to have to train in the legislative process when you've already got someone ready to go?"
The state representative said one of his top priorities in the secretary of state's office was to weed out voting by nonresidents.
"Most people need to know my position against illegal immigration. In that aspect, Voter ID is not going to do us any good if we have people on our rolls who are not citizens of Mississippi. There is no law that demands that we prove citizenship when we go to vote. My first goal, other than voter ID, (is) to pass some laws making us prove citizenship before we place a vote."
Lott noted that the younger generation in the state doesn't seem to be taking an active role in politics. "Part of the reason I think we're seeing a decline in registration among young people is because they're fearful of serving on jury duty," Lott said. "In Mississippi, we've got 2.3 million driver's licenses issued and 1.6 million registered voters. I think we need to base our jury duty on those with driver's licenses, and that will take away their reason to fear registering to vote."
U.S. District Court Judge Allen Pepper ordered a voter ID requirement be imposed on all Mississippi voters this year, in response to a Democratic lawsuit closing its own primary and ousting changeover conservatives from influencing Democratic primaries. Democrats, who had been battling primaries delivering Republican-backed Democrats, now must deal with getting their voters re-registered. Mississippi's official state election board, consisting of Clark, Gov. Haley Barbour and Attorney General Jim Hood, ordered the federal order implemented by the August primaries, though Pepper agreed to delay his order until Aug. 31, 2008. Both Hood and Clark said it would be impossible to re-register almost two million voters by August.
The issue remains, however, with some voter ID opponents arguing that re-registering to vote is difficult for many invalid, senior citizens, or the generally noncommittal, who don't always keep abreast of news but who find themselves unprepared when they arrive at the polls with their new requirements.
Lott said he was working on legislation to address that issue. "I've got a piece of legislation that includes photo I.D., but which allows an alternate way for those who don't have photo I.D., such as two proofs of residency with your name on it, as it appears on the voter roll," Lott said.
Courting Young Voters
Republican Delbert Hosemann, 60, is a real estate business owner and a business lawyer who says his business background makes him a cinch for the job.
"I've been doing business law for 36 years now, so I'm very familiar with the business aspect of the secretary of state and also with the leasing of 16 Section land kind of things," Hosemann said. "The secretary of state's office is the business office for the state, and that's what I do. It's very easy for me to slide into that position because they run all the companies and land and tidelands, so it's an easy transition for me."
Hosemann said he wanted to tackle the state's lagging voter rolls by more intimately linking voter registration with getting a driver's license. "If you can enjoy the privilege of driving on our roads, you need to take the responsibility for voting, and I will encourage everyone who has a driver's license to register to vote," he said, adding that the falling voter registration also means a smaller jury pool. He said he intends to use the system already in place to encourage registration.
"We want to do public service announcements. We want to encourage people to vote. We want to make sure they understand their responsibilities."
Hosemann said he will be very visible in his efforts to promote new voters.
"We find, looking at the statistics, that there's a much higher percentage of voters 50 or over than who are 21 to 30. What you'll see me doing is going to every college in the state, and we're going to have public forums into why should you run for political office, why should you be involved and why it's an honorable thing to do."
Hosemann said he favors voter ID and does not believe that re-registration would inevitably boot some voters off the rolls.
"I don't agree with that. There's no reason to feel alienated when you go to vote. There are 600,000 people who have driver's licenses who aren't registered to vote. ... I think we can have an effective identification process. One's been proposed by the Legislature a few times. And we need to go through with it," Hosemann said, adding that getting people re-registered in time for next year's primaries was largely in the hands of the Legislature.
"I hope the Legislature adopts this system early in January, as quickly as possible, so that we have as long a time as we can get to get re-registration done. We've got a big job to do."
Inspired by Haley
Jeffrey Rupp, 47, is the former mayor of Columbus who said he was inspired to run for the post by Gov. Haley Barbour, and by watching the political corruption of a north Mississippi election system.
"There was this guy, Ike Brown, a political activist that the feds just popped for intimidating voters. Back when I was mayor, he would pay me visits and tell me the way it was going to be, and it was so frustrating. I want election reform because of all the Ike Browns of the world; we just made it so easy for them. Also, I've worked real close with Haley (Barbour) on the steel mill in Columbus and the helicopter plant, and Barbour told me it would be a real good job for my skill set," Rupp said.
Rupp said the secretary of state's office needed to listen more closely to the need of circuit clerks. "If they want to go with different voting machines then we ought to back them since they're the front line for the system. We should be asking them why they would want a particular system and why they should choose that. When I was mayor, we'd ask the people in the department what they wanted, then set it up and run them through their paces," Rupp said, adding also that he wanted to update the secretary of state's Web page.
"The (secretary of state) Web site was very good when it first came online, but now it's very dated. If you were a business, and you wanted to see what grants you'd get from ARC, the Appalachian Regional Commission, if you type in 'ARC' and type in 'grants' it doesn't take you anywhere. Nothing happens. Knowing what preconceived notions businesses looking to come here have of the state, we need to make a really good first impression. We just need to nail it the first time, and the Web site is a good way to do that," Rupp said.
Rupp is a strong proponent of the need to re-register voters. "When I was mayor, we sent out letters in Columbus trying to find out how many voters were out there. We've got Columbus, a town with 26,000 people, but only 6,000 (responses) came back. We had 22,000 voters, but when you take out all the school kids, that's just improbable, but you can't just arbitrarily take folks off the rolls, which is the way it should be. ..."
Rupp said he would consider bringing in young or first-time voters through networking sites. "I think we're probably going to have to work through the social networking sites, MySpace and that sort of thing. We could try recruiting through high schools but we're going to have to do it in a way that relates to students. If we do it as a bunch of suits, it won't work," Rupp said.
Run It Like a Business
Democrat Rob Smith, 55, said he is well qualified to run the new office thanks to his resume. "I have a master's degree in business, so I can run it as a business and make sure it's run as efficiently as possible. Making sure we've got qualified folks in the office, making sure when a person walks into the office with a problem they can walk out again feeling like they've been served as they should be," Smith said.
Like Lott, Smith is familiar with the doings of the House and Senate, and said he can put that experience to work in the secretary of state's office.
"I've been in the Senate for 20 years and the House for four years and represented this state, wrote a lot of bills on education, crime and children's health issues, like the CHIP program and the recent adoption laws. I've written nationally recognized laws made for the betterment of this state, and I know my experience will help me work with the Legislature."
Smith said he wanted the secretary of state's office to focus on training local school boards and protect landowners.
"We will annually train members of the school boards on timber leases, oil leases and investment so that they can go back to their counties and make sure that their children get the best money for their dollar off 16th Section land. The second thing we'll do is set a rural development bank, if the Legislature will approve it, so that people won't automatically lose their land to tax sales. The county will make the revenue off the tax sales at the day of sale, but the people will be able to have their land recovered for a certain period of time rather than it be sold for back taxes."
Smith's plan for dealing with a low voter turnout in the under-30 crowd will involve better record keeping and the embrace of the mobile computer age.
"The secretary of state is the record keeper of the state. We got a good system. It's just fragmented. You've got the Department of Economic Development doing stuff, you've got the Department of Human Services, the secretary of state, you've got the Legislature. There's mega information out there, but we're fragmented. We will work with businesses and the public entities to get that database less fragmented, so the younger generation will be able to know on their iPods what's going on. They'll be able to know they can handle things with ease, they'll know when they can register, where they can register—e-mail messages sent to them reminding them of registration deadlines. We want them to know that they're important," he said.
Smith said he disagreed with Judge Pepper's Voter ID decision, calling it a "serious disenfranchisement."
"You've got a federal judge telling everybody that they've got to re-register, but a 60-, 75- or 80-year-old often doesn't drive a car and has kids who have moved out of state," Smith said. "My mother and daddy are 87 and 83. Do you think that they want to get in somewhere and sign another document when they've been legal and paying taxes all their lives? You're going to lose a large populace of people who don't have the means to get there, or they'll just say, 'Why bother?' Look at Congress, with the worst rating of Congress in years. The president has almost the worst rating of any president in the history of the United States. People are upset and disenchanted with voting, period. The more you encumber them, the less people will come out and vote."
Going for Young Voters
Democrat John Windsor, a former poll worker, said he wanted to make voter re-registration central to the secretary of state's office.
"I think with the forthcoming changes that have been mandated by the federal court —whether we're talking about the voter ID or the re-registration—I think it's more important now that ever in the state's history to have a secretary of state who knows how to run elections and who has handled elections. That's the primary reason," said the former high school teacher. "We've got a background in education and experience in the voting booth and in running elections, and we'll need that."
Windsor, 29, said one of his biggest desires was to focus on getting younger generations registered and voting. He said that hitting the college campuses are essential to that end, but added that he wanted to pay particular attention to high-schoolers.
"Something good that can come out of this re-registration is getting more people involved in the process. More people can register for the first time, and we might actually be the top state in the nation with the most new registered voters, or—instead of being last again—we can have the highest number of voting age population under 30."
Windsor said he will be attending civics classes, career development centers and 12th grade classes, trying to spur voters as they come of age.
He called other candidates' focus on ousting illegal immigrants from the voting population a waste of time.
"I want to talk about the interests of this office. All that is is a bunch of talking points from Washington. Yes, it's a hot issue. Every illegal immigrant that works in Mississippi takes away a job from a legitimate Mississippian, and until we have a zero unemployment rate, I have to be concerned with that. But I'm not going to sell the people a bill of goods that has absolutely nothing to do with our office. I've never even heard of an illegal immigrant trying to vote in Mississippi. That means trying to prove citizenship, and I don't think they're in a big hurry to do that. I want to keep this election talking about the issues and the election and education. They're just throwing out some red meat to get a press statement."
Candidates Jabari Toins and Gene Sills could not be reached for comment for this article.