Mississippi ballot initiatives: Adjusting the hand of government

With comparatively few shots being fired in the statewide elections, many are turning to the three ballot initiatives to quench their thirst for electoral intrigue. All three of the proposed initiatives are historic in a number of ways.

If there is a common denominator with which to assess the impact of these measures it would be the degree to which the passage of each would lighten or strengthen the hand of government over the lives of citizens.

The three initiatives that have gained the 89,285 signatures necessary to make it onto the ballot for the 2011 elections are labeled “The Definition of Person,” “Voter Identification,” and “Eminent Domain.”

Each of these has their own story to tell.

The “Definition of Person” or the “Personhood Amendment” as it has come to be called most frequently has come to overshadow the other two as far as level of debate and national publicity are concerned. The major issue that arises every time the question of when it is legal to perform an abortion is embodied by the question, ”When does life begin and hence at what point does a person gain the protection of the Constitution of the United States?” The famous case that provides some rudimentary guidance to the questions as to who may seek an abortion and when an abortion can be legally performed is of course Roe v. Wade of 1973. It was during the arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Roe v. Wade that Justice Potter Stewart opined that at some point “person” would necessarily need to be defined because of the 14th Amendment language that no “person” could be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

Anti-abortion advocates in Mississippi have accepted the challenge of being the first state in the Union to provide that definition of “person.” Given the social, cultural, and religious environment in Mississippi, national groups committed to overturning Roe v. Wade have obviously chosen Mississippi as “ground zero” from which to fire the first shot in, what they hope to be the last battle to over turn Roe v. Wade. Mississippi’s initiative holds that “person” or “persons” will be defined as “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.” The comprehensive nature of that amendment has come to envelope the electoral debate perhaps as no other initiative ever has. Now a topic and an activity within the female anatomy that in the past was only discussed in whispers, has become the subject of debate in restaurants, meeting halls, and Sunday school classes across the State. Similarly if the amendment passes the womb will become a crowded place where physicians, attorneys, government bureaucrats, clergy, scientific ethicists and assorted others will gather to fight for their respective positions. On the government intrusiveness scale the effects of passing this one would be quite high.

At any other time, here in the state that was the focal point of the Civil Rights Movement, “Voter Identification” would likely have garnered the lion’s share of attention. This time “Voter ID” has had to share the stage with “personhood” and “Eminent Domain.” Opposition to “Voter ID” measures in this and other Southern states has been based on the historic resentment of tactics designed to prevent African-Americans from voting in the days prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many older African-American legislators have experienced firsthand what it was like to be denied access to the ballot box because of a judgment call by a poll worker over improper or lack of identification. The firm statement of “Never Again!” still has meaning to those who experienced such denial. In Mississippi it will be interesting to see what the impact will be of a larger-than-usual black voter turnout in support of the first African-American nominee for governor of a major party. If “Voter ID” passes, the hand of government will become more demonstrative in election administration.

The “Eminent Domain” initiative may be clearly seen as an effort by its proponents to strike back at what they would view as government heavy-handedness in their effort to preserve private property rights. Eminent domain, in principle, allows government to take private property in exchange for “fair market value” for uses that are generally labeled “for the public good.” The amendment on the Mississippi ballot essentially impedes the taking of private property and conveying that property to “for profit” entities. The use of eminent domain for massive economic development projects where ultimately there is a profit to be made has violated the sensibilities of a sufficient number of Mississippians that is has gained a place on the ballot. Success on the “Eminent Domain” initiative will mean a distinct lessening of intrusiveness of government into the area of private land ownership.

The United States Constitution and those of the respective states establish the structure and basic framework of governments across this country. They establish the relationship between governments and the citizens they govern. On Nov. 8, citizens of Mississippi will cast votes that will potentially change the governing structure in Mississippi in some very meaningful ways.

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