Article published Nov 4, 2007
Moving toward voter ID
Give me your name, age, address and sign this book. That’s it. That’s all the information election workers can ask voters right now in Mississippi.
That could change if proponents of Mississippi voter ID get their way.
The move to having voters show an ID before touching the screen or marking a ballot is picking up steam.
At least three rulings this year moved the state further along the path toward statewide election reforms that could include a voter identification program.
Voter ID was a lukewarm issue in this year’s legislative session, during which several bills were introduced but never passed both houses.
But the issue is anything but lukewarm to state Sen. Joey Fillingane. For eight years, he’s proposed voter ID legislation. Critics won out every time.
“They said there was no evidence of fraud anywhere in the state,” Fillingane said.
That changed in October when a judge found evidence of voting irregularities in the August Democratic primary for circuit clerk in Jefferson Davis County. Clint Langley challenged the results of his narrow loss to Nadine Thompson.
Circuit Judge Forrest Johnson of Natchez found at least 26 cases of voting irregularities, including one instance where a dead man purportedly voted and another one where someone who was hospitalized in an adjoining county cast a vote. It was enough evidence to throw out the results of the Democratic primary for circuit clerk.
“Clearly now we have a documented case in Jefferson Davis County where you have deceased persons voting and folks who were not in the county voting,” said Fillingane, who represents Jefferson Davis County in the Senate.
Two federal judges also weighed in on the issue this summer.
In June, U.S. District Judge Allen Pepper of Cleveland ordered the state to require voters to declare a party affiliation, re-register and vote using a photo ID system for the 2008 party primaries. The ruling, which is being appealed, came in response to a Mississippi Democratic Party lawsuit filed in May 2006 to prevent Republicans from voting in Democratic primaries.
Next came a case from Noxubee County in which U.S. District Judge Tom Lee of Jackson found that the Democratic Executive Committee and its chairman, Ike Brown, had violated the voting rights of white residents by using his position on the committee to influence the election. Brown had hired notaries who went into the community, gave black voters absentee ballots and encouraged them to vote for preferred candidates.
Fillingane’s opponent on Tuesday, Constitution Party candidate Vince Thornton of Collins, said a voter ID program should not be tied to a national identification program that allows the government to better track individuals.
“I’m not opposed to an ID to vote, but it shouldn’t require us to create a Nazi-like government state to live in,” Thornton said. “I don’t want dead people voting, but if the solution is worse than the problem…. I would live with a few dead people voting if it means giving up my liberties.”
Fillingane’s Democratic opponent, Gerald Buffington, did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment.
Candidates on reform
The secretary of state oversees elections in Mississippi. Democrat Rob Smith and Republican Delbert Hosemann are running for the open seat in Tuesday’s election, and both support voter reform.
But they have different takes on voter ID.
“Being on the campaign trail from February to now, I kept hearing people tell me story after story in county after county how voter fraud needs to be cleaned up,” Hosemann said in a telephone interview last week.
As a result, Hosemann is proposing a voter identification program that would be augmented by early voting to reduce the number of absentee ballots going out. He also said he would increase poll worker training and certification programs to make sure elections are fair.
Smith, who does not see voter ID as a necessary component of voter reform, believes a task force of circuit clerks and election officials should come up with a comprehensive package that would encourage more voters to come to the polls.
He discussed an early voting program for senior citizens and “same-day registration, same-day vote” legislation that would encourage more people to vote. But his final proposal would not come until after the task force completes its work.
“What we’ve said from day one is that we will work with the circuit clerk to come with comprehensive voter reforms and we will look at whatever the circuit clerks bring,” he said. “That package can include everything, but at least you have experts telling you the way to run an election. You don’t just have some politician telling you one thing.”
Smith said poll workers are already allowed to ask voters to state their age and address, which can be verified in the poll books, which he said addresses the issue of people voting under others’ names.
Hosemann cites a poll conducted in late September by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm in Alexandria, Va., that shows 86 percent of Mississippians believe voter fraud is a problem in state elections while only 8 percent did not think it was a problem.
The study also shows that 97 percent of Mississippi voters possess a valid ID and nine of 10 voters would support a state voter ID law.
What others say
Voter ID is contentious for some groups – such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and AARP.
Members of state and local chapters of the NAACP have spoken out against the issue, saying it is reminiscent of a poll tax and would require more work to register and a possible fee to get proper ID.
“Voter ID is a form of poll tax and poll tax really was a sham when it came to African-Americans,” Forrest County NAACP President Clarence Magee said. “I don’t think they should put any more unnecessary requirement on people to vote. An ID card is just something else you have to keep up with.”
Many lawmakers, however, have said they would find a way to make identification cards available to voters who do not already have a driver’s license or other state-issued ID free of charge.
On the national level, the AARP has opposed voter ID because many older voters may not have a driver’s license or other identification card.
But Joe Yore, a member of Hattiesburg branch of the AARP, said it is not a concern for him.
“I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense why anybody would be against it. I understand the old poll tax was not good but there is absolutely no reason they can’t give someone an ID if they don’t have a driver’s license.”
Incumbent Rep. Ken Morgan, who represents a small part of Jeff Davis County and is running against O.K. “Kenny” Moore, said he is a firm believer in voter ID.
“If what’s happening in Jeff Davis County is not an eye-opener to people who didn’t believe in voter ID before, I don’t know what will be,” he said. “It’s no different than having a Social Security card. It is something I am going to be in favor of 110 percent.”
Moore did not return telephone calls.