At a recent event, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said he hoped new voter-identification laws will be in place by September—in time for federal elections. He's waiting on the Legislature to decide how to apply the new amendment that will require photo ID at the polls, though, and depending on how strict our law is when the Legislature is through with it, Mississippi could be waiting much longer than that before voter ID becomes a reality.
Just this week, the Department of Justice blocked a new voter-identification law in Texas, saying it would disproportionately harm Hispanic voters, who are less likely to have photo Ids. Late last year, the department blocked a similar law in South Carolina that it said harmed black voters.
The Justice Department is likely to submit Mississippi's voter-ID law to the same scrutiny as it gave to those two states—and rightly so. Barely 50 years ago in Mississippi, African Americans who wanted to exercise their right to vote could face violence, intimidation or a jumble of bureaucratic nonsense designed specifically to keep them away from the polls. The Justice Department—and our state lawmakers—owe it to Mississippians of all colors to ensure that our new voter-identification law does not punish citizens for the "crime" of not possessing a photo-ID card.
The fact that most people already have driver's licenses or other state-issued ID cards is no reason to disenfranchise those who do not. On the contrary, officials should take extra pains to make sure that the voices of minority groups are heard.
While it's true that African Americans and Hispanics are less likely to have photo identification, racial minority groups are not the only ones affected. People with low incomes, senior citizens, people with disabilities and students are also less likely to have Ids. For some, even getting the birth certificate required to apply for a photo ID is an expensive and time-consuming obstacle. The new voter-ID requirements especially threaten seniors who were born before giving infants birth certificates became common practice.
In Mississippi, you need a birth certificate to get an ID, and an ID to get a birth certificate. The Legislature must address this.
Fortunately, lawmakers have an opportunity to make our voter-ID law as fair as possible, without subverting the public's will to have a photo-ID law. Two bills in the Legislature right now seek to interpret the voter-ID amendment, with a few differences. For example, one would allow college students to vote using their student Ids—a relatively simple way to make it easier for that demographic to vote.
Volunteers can help, too, by educating people about the documents they need to get an ID, or by driving elderly relatives or neighbors to apply for ID cards. It's time to get organized, folks, and get out the voter ID.