Mississippi can avoid Justice Department review on voter ID law

October 21, 2011

Legal Affairs, Politics

Mississippi’s distant history of infringing on voting rights makes it likely the U.S. Justice Department will have questions on just how the state plans to implement a voter identification law, should voters decide Nov. 8 to change the state constitution to require the IDs before allowing someone to vote.

But Mississippi does have the option to avoid Justice Department scrutiny, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Instead of seeking pre-clearance of the changes as mandated by the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, the state can seek approval of the changes from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, said Nancy Abuda, senior staff counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union’s southern regional office in Atlanta.

In fact, the state could try to get its voter ID law approved by Justice and if uncomfortable with any questions asked, it can withdraw its approval request and opt for court, Abuda said. “In cases where the DOJ says it wants more information, we have seen states withdraw their submissions and then go the court route.”

Should it seek DOJ clearance, the agency will look at whether the state has made it more difficult to cast a ballot. It also will consider whether the new law’s enactment dilutes the voting strength of minorities, Abuda said. “The DOJ is going to be looking at whether the change was enacted for discriminatory purposes.”

Abuda said the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit would address the same issues if Mississippi seeks its approval.

Mississippi’s history of suppressing the votes of African-Americans before and during the Civil Rights Era earned it a place among a handful of states that must undergo close scrutiny of any voting changes that could hamper the ability of minorities to cast ballots. The Mississippi Secretary of State’s office says the pre-clearance review can take no more than 60 days and would occur before state lawmakers enact enabling legislation to meet terms of a Voter ID amendment. Abuda said she is puzzled that the state will seek a review before setting the ID law enforcement rules. “I can’t conceive of how they can ask for pre-clearance without first having the enabling legislation,” she said.

Backers of the proposed Voter ID initiative say it prevents voters from using a false identify to vote and protects the integrity of the voting process. Opponents say no such identity fraud has occurred at the polls in Mississippi and charge the measure seeks to disenfranchise low income and elderly voters, many of whom have neither state-issued driver licenses nor state-issued photo identification cards.

The Secretary of State’s office says it will waive the $14 charge for the IDs (at a cost of up to $1.5 million to the state) if a voter can’t afford the fee, though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an Indiana voter ID case that neither a means test nor a pledge of poverty can be required

To get the card, a voter must present proof of residency such a utility bill or residential lease, a Social Security card (non-metal) or a print out from the Social Security Administration and a certified birth certificate (not a hospital certificate).

Unlike a driver license, which is good for eight years, the state-issued ID must be renewed every four years and renewals can’t be made by mail. They must be made either online or at one of the state’s 54 driver license offices, said Jon Kalahar, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.

He said online renewals are prohibited if the resident has changed his address since receiving the card.

Known as Initiative 27, the proposed voter ID amendment won a place on the ballot after supporters collected the necessary 89,285 petition signatures of registered voters in the state.

Justices Department officials did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

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