At last July's Neshoba County Fair, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann upped the ante on the usual GOP talking points of "business good, government bad"; state's rights; Obama's failures. After a few minutes of self-congratulation, he said:
"Ninety-nine percent of Mississippians believe their government should balance its budget, should follow the laws passed by its citizens and believe in protecting their right to privacy of their personal information. But you know, there is always that 1 percent of naysayers who believe the sky is falling, and they believe the Constitution is a living document and state law should be enforced only when it is favorable to them. The same 1 percent also does not believe in Friday night football, hunting and fishing, reading with their grandchildren, having church friends, the value of hard work, or planting trees for future generations."
What? This went beyond dog-whistle speechifying to "us versus them" divisiveness and downright dishonesty. Hosemann implied that this 1 percent is un-American. It's a diversion from the fact that the richest 1 percent of Americans hold 35 percent of the nation's wealth. Mississippi's wealth gap is among the widest in the nation.
Then, last week in The Clarion-Ledger, the secretary declared a USA Today column by Alan Draper, a history professor at New York's St. Lawrence University, "misleading, inaccurate and an example of lazy journalism mixed with weakly guised prejudice."
At the end of a piece about civil-rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, Draper swung at Hosemann's political tent pole: voter ID.
Draper wrote: "Like literacy tests and poll taxes Mississippi used in the past to deprive blacks like Fannie Lou Hamer of the right to vote, the state's new voter ID law will have a discriminatory impact on minorities.
Less than 10 percent of voting-age whites in Mississippi do not have a driver's license while almost 30 percent of voting-age blacks are without one. That is, eligible black voters are three times as likely as whites to lack the most common form of government-issued ID required to vote."
Hosemann responded, writing, "The unsubstantiated claim as to the availability and the possession of photo identification by any voting population is totally false." Not so. Draper's statistics come directly from the Mississippi Department of Motor Vehicles.
"In two statewide elections, which included both Democratic and Republican primaries, 99.9 percent of Mississippians exhibited satisfactory photo identification," Hosemann continued. "No one was deprived of their right to vote." But counting IDs of people who voted proves nothing about those who didn't. It doesn't say how many could not get IDs, or how many didn't try because they are convinced, again, that Mississippi is denying their rights.
Hosemann aimed similar antipathy at a 2012 Brennan Center for Justice study, "The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification," calling it "purposely inaccurate and misleading." Yet, the Brennan Center's statistics, like Draper's, are accurate.
In December 2012, Hosemann commissioned a voter exit poll that showed 97 percent of white voters had IDs, compared to 84 percent of black voters and 80 percent of those with incomes less than $15,000. That left 38,000 voters without IDs.
Now, Hosemann hypes the 2,000 voter IDs issued since then, instead of the 36,000 not dispensed. He crows about award-winning ads, but fails to say how that's remotely relevant.
Finally, Hosemann said St. Lawrence University has a "minority" enrollment of 3 percent (the school's website states that 11.8 percent of enrollees are students of color) and challenges comparison to Mississippi's universities, but it's a false equivalency. St. Lawrence is a private liberal-arts school in a state with a black population of 15.9 percent. A fairer comparison is to Millsaps College, whose black enrollment was 10.8 percent in 2012, in 37-percent black Mississippi.
Hosemann would have us believe that the 1 percent is the problem. "And, that 1 percent—well, they can just get off their butts and move somewhere else," Hosemann said, closing his Neshoba speech.
Voter ID is not about voter fraud. What little voter fraud there is occurs in absentee ballots, which do not require IDs. Republican voter suppression—whether through voter ID, gerrymandering or limiting access to polls—is real, as Pennsylvania Republican House Leader Mike Turzai famously admitted in 2012: "Voter ID, which is gonna allow Gov. (Mitt) Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania; done."
Turzai isn't the only Republican to admit that voter ID is a suppression tactic. Mississippi ranks dead last in The Pew Charitable Trust's Elections Performance Index published last April. As Draper told me, to say IDs "cure" fraud is similar to saying laws restricting abortion access "protects" women. It's demonstrably not true, and Hosemann's specious arguments won't make it so.
Ronni Mott is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor in Jackson.