Voter ID: Up for the Final Count | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Voter ID: Up for the Final Count

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Voter ID may be an issue in the Legislature again this week, though the bill ultimately has a slim chance of getting anywhere this session.

Last week, the Senate passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 624, to suspend the deadline and revive a dead voter-ID bill that perished in a rules committee this month. Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, convinced two-thirds of the Senate to support the resolution last Tuesday, saying the bill would address voters' continued call for an end to election fraud in the state. Burton referred to the bill as a good compromise between warring factions both opposed to and in favor of voter ID.

Voter ID enemies argue that saddling votes with paperwork would hinder black seniors who remember when whites required poll taxes, among other bogus permits. In response, the Senate added language exempting senior citizens "born on or before June 30, 1944, and who have not been issued a valid Mississippi driver's license."

The white Republican-dominated Senate tends to supports some form of voter ID, while the largely Democratic House, which contains considerably more blacks proportionately, opposes it. Burton hoped the bill would foster more unity between the two chambers by automatically returning suffrage to convicted felons (not convicted of rape or murder) two years after serving time and paying fines. State law now demands felons seek suffrage by petitioning a legislator.

An American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi statement decried the Senate's open hand to convicts as an attempt to toss more voters from the rolls, however, by increasing the number of crimes that get a felon removed from the polls in the first place.

"Senate Concurrent Resolution 624 is bad state policy that attempts to trick Mississippians into believing that it would address voter fraud and give ex-felons their right to vote back, but in reality, it takes voting rights away from more individuals who have paid their debts to society, then forces them to reregister two years after the completion of all terms and conditions of their sentences," wrote ACLU Executive Director Nsombi Lambright.

State law now cites 10 crimes that boot felons off the voter rolls: embezzlement, forgery, theft, bigamy, arson, receiving money/goods under false pretense, murder, rape, bribery and perjury. However, the bill that concurrent resolution 624 is attempting to re-animate expands that list saying: "persons convicted of any felony shall not be allowed to vote while incarcerated and for two years after the completion of all terms of the sentence."

"Under current law, only about one-third of individuals who commit crimes have lost their right to vote. Under the proposed legislation, that would change, making about two-thirds of individuals lose their right to vote," said Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP.

Johnson said that it was likely not an accident that the majority of people losing their suffrage through felonies are black. "These were always the kind of crimes that lawmakers felt blacks were more likely to commit," Johnson said.

Blacks accounted for well over 90 percent of bad checks filed with the Hinds County District Attorney's bad checks unit under former District Attorney Faye Peterson.

Writing a bad check, occasionally characterized by ACLU members as "the offense of being impoverished," becomes a felony if the check amount surpasses $100. Often people guilty of writing the bad check will apologize, pay the fine and all other costs incurred, and then drop their jaws when they go to vote and find themselves ineligible.

State Attorney General Jim Hood said making photo ID necessary won't correct the brunt of voter fraud in Mississippi.

Hood acknowledged voter identity-theft, but explained that more than 95 percent of voter fraud cases filing through his office are committed through the abuse of absentee ballots—which cannot be regulated through the administration of photo ID.

Johnson said many advocates of voter ID know the issue is useless in combating fraud, and said it served more to disenfranchise black voters or the working poor who barely have time to make it to the polls and could be effectively barred by this one extra hurdle.

The NAACP, working in conjunction with other pro-voter organizations, worked miracles in registering many young and minority voters through mail-in registration forms. The circuit clerk of Hinds County registered more than 7,000 new voters in both January and early February, delivering an incredible 40,000 votes for Illinois senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

Many representatives in accord with the NAACP will not likely suffer Concurrent Resolution 624, and the bill needs 82 of their votes for it to go forward. Even if the rule suspension bill manages to get the House's two-thirds vote, the bill it protects must still fight its way back through the original committee that killed it and then through a House chamber that is largely suspicious of it.

Members of the ACLU are already pronouncing the bill dead though House Speaker Billy McCoy—never a huge fan of imposing voter ID—is loathe to gauge the House's sentiment.

"I never liked to try to predict how a bill like voter ID will be received by representatives," McCoy said. "That always depends on what's in it and how it's presented."

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