Is Mississippi hurting its own case as it seeks federal approval for a voter ID law?
A bill signed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant would require every voter to show a driver’s license or other photo identification before casting a ballot. It also promises the state will provide a free photo ID card to any voter who needs one. But, for the fiscal year that begins July 1, legislators set aside no money to make the cards.
Will the feds see the lack of up-front cash as a lack of commitment?
It’s an important question, because Mississippi officials are relying heavily on the promise of free IDs as they try to persuade federal officials the ID requirement won’t diminish minorities’ voting power. Because of Mississippi’s history of racial discrimination, it is required by the 1965 Voting Rights Act to get federal approval for any changes in election laws or procedures.
Opponents of voter ID compare it to poll taxes that were used for decades to suppress black citizens’ constitutional right to vote. To get past that comparison, supporters say that if ID cards are provided for free, it’s not possible to liken the ID mandate to a poll tax.
No out-of-pocket expenses, no problem — so the logic goes.
Sen. Derrick Simmons, who’s a member of the Legislative Black Caucus, doesn’t buy that line of thinking. He said a voter ID law could suppress turnout by Mississippi’s most vulnerable citizens, particularly older people, minorities and the disabled.
“I think the promise of free ID is, in fact, an empty promise,” Simmons, D-Greenville, told The Associated Press.
The eight other states fully covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and required to get a federal blessing for election changes, are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. In recent months, the U.S. Justice Department has rejected voter ID proposals from Texas and South Carolina.
In last November’s election, 62 percent of Mississippi voters approved a voter ID constitutional amendment. House Bill 921, signed by Bryant last week, is designed to put the mandate into law. Both the amendment and the bill need federal approval.
Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican who supports voter ID, said officials don’t yet know how many Mississippi residents might lack photo identification. He said officials also don’t know how much it would cost to make the requisite number of ID cards.
Hosemann said the state can obligate the money for state-issued photo ID cards after the law receives federal clearance.
“We didn’t ask for that this year because we felt like … if you get it passed early enough, then we could use a special session or come up with some kind of way to have the funds,” Hosemann said this past week when asked about money to make IDs.
He said federal approval would be needed by July if the voter ID law is to be in effect for the Nov. 6 presidential and congressional election. That would give officials time to start making IDs and doing other things to carry out the law.
“But if we go past this July time line and we don’t realistically get our stuff back — realistically, the Legislature will be here in January, we’ll be back over here trying to outline the money we need to implement it,” Hosemann said.
While legislators weren’t asked to earmark money to make ID cards this year, they did approve one specific spending request from Hosemann. The secretary of state’s budget, Senate Bill 3007, includes $495,000 to pay lawyers in case there’s litigation over voter ID.
Emily Wagster Pettus covers the State Legislature for the Mississippi Associated Press in Jackson.