By EMILY W. PETTUS
JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers have squabbled for at least 15 years about whether to require voters to show a driver’s license or other form of identification at the polls. They haven’t enacted a voter ID law, but the issue never disappears and the passion surrounding it never seems to diminish.
Now, it’s moving to the Nov. 8 statewide ballot through the initiative process. Voters in the general election will decide whether to put a voter ID requirement in the Mississippi constitution.
If the initiative passes, it will be examined by the U.S. Justice Department, which could block a voter ID requirement or let it take effect. Because of Mississippi’s history of racial discrimination, the Justice Department reviews any proposed election changes to ensure that they don’t adversely affect minority voters.
Supporters say requiring voters to show ID will help ensure the integrity of elections by preventing people from masquerading as others to cast ballots.
Opponents say voter ID amounts to a form of a poll tax, and that it could intimidate older black voters who were once prevented from exercising their constitutional rights under Jim Crow.
The two candidates for governor have different views about the voter ID initiative.
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant of Brandon says he’ll vote for it. But as the Senate’s presiding officer, he missed a chance to push voter ID into law in 2009.
Democratic Mayor Johnny DuPree of Hattiesburg says he’ll vote against the initiative. But he says if he’s governor and voter ID is part of the constitution, he will uphold it just as he would any other part of the constitution.
“One writer said that it is a solution looking for a problem. And I believe that’s exactly what it is,” DuPree said during a July 21 gubernatorial debate televised from the Mississippi College School of Law.
DuPree said voter apathy is a problem, and officials should step up efforts to educate voters.
“If you want to stop voter fraud, it’s not somebody having ID. It’s from people buying votes,” said DuPree, a former Forrest County supervisor. “It’s from absentee ballots. That’s where the fraud is. It’s not from somebody showing their ID.”
Bryant said during the televised debate that he believes voter ID will help ensure votes can’t be stolen.
“Year after year, the Senate passed a clean voter ID bill that said you needed a government ID that was issued to you by the state of Mississippi,” Bryant said. “See, we call them driver’s licenses. But if you didn’t have a driver’s license, why, you could go to the Department of Public Safety and get an ID at no cost so everyone would have that.”
Voter ID had a chance to become law in 2009, but a group of Senate Republicans killed it. They were among Bryant’s allies, and Bryant said at the time that he supported their actions.
Republican Sen. Merle Flowers of Southaven led the effort to kill the bill, saying he objected to provisions that would allow people to start voting 15 days before an election. Current law says Mississippians may vote early by absentee ballot, but only for specific reasons such as knowing that they’ll be out of town on election day.
Those who killed the bill took a drubbing on conservative talk radio, and there was an unsuccessful attempt to revive it a few days later.
One of Flowers’ allies in killing the bill, Republican Sen. Joey Fillingane of Sumrall, started the voter ID initiative. Bryant said it’s a good idea to let voters have a say. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the issue that strongly appeals to conservatives could help increase their turnout on the day Bryant’s on the ballot for governor.