With courts looking skeptically at voter ID laws, Mississippi’s top elections official is holding his state’s ID measure up as a fair and balanced model, saying the Magnolia State “wanted to do it right.”
To put it mildly, not everyone would agree.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann revealed at a gathering of fellow Republicans Wednesday that other states have contacted him for advice on how to draft their ID laws so as to withstand a legal challenge, The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tenn. reported.
“The Secretary of State in Missouri [which passed a voter ID law last year via ballot initiative] got in touch to get information on how we handled it,” Hosemann said. “There were several critical factors: For one thing, we got everybody in the room together when we were discussing it — Democrats, Republicans, circuit clerks, lawyers.”
“Also, we established a relationship with the civil rights division of the Justice Department and told them we wanted to do it right.”
The picture Hosemann paints of a collaborative process leading to a widely accepted law is, frankly, false.
It’s true that, unlike voter ID laws passed by Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Alabama, and several other states, Mississippi’s hasn’t been challenged in court. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been controversial.
Even before it had officially passed in 2012, the state NAACP asked the federal government to block the law, alleging it would discriminate against African-Americans, who tend to be more likely than whites to lack ID. At that time, Mississippi and most other southern states had to get all their voting rules pre-approved by Washington.
Indeed, state officials appear to have had so little confidence that the Feds would green-light their law that they didn’t even apply to get it approved. For a year after being passed, the measure went unenforced.
“The presumption is because of Mississippi’s history of discrimination against black citizens and denying black citizens the right to vote, any voting change could not be pre-cleared unless the state proves it does not discriminate,” a lawyer for the state NAACP said at the time. “We feel certain the state cannot meet that burden of proof.”
But in June 2013, the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, meaning the ID law no longer needed sign-off from the federal government. Only then did it go into effect.
Since then, the law hasn’t generated the level of controversy that ID measures in Texas, Wisconsin, and North Carolina have, in part because Mississippi appears to have made it easier to access an ID. But it has determined at least one local election race, and there’s plenty of evidence that it’s kept voters from the polls.
In a June 2014 Republican Senate runoff, Hosemann touted the fact that only 300 people out of 400,000 voters were forced to cast a provisional ballot and then failed to return within a week with the proper ID to verify it, as the law requires. But a law that disenfranchises at least 300 people in a low turnout Republican primary is nothing to brag about. Nor does that figure include the unknowable number of Mississipians who were deterred entirely from the polls by the law. And, of course, the equivalent numbers for the much higher-turnout 2014 and 2016 general elections would likely be much larger, but Hosemann’s office told The Daily Democracy it doesn’t have those numbers.
Meanwhile, the state hasn’t pointed to a single case of in-person voter impersonation that the law would have stopped
In short, Hosemann’s effort to portray the Mississippi law as an unqualified success relies on a willingness to simply ignore the voters we know it disenfranchised.
Last thing: It would be nice if the local and regional news media that regularly cover state election officials were willing to provide this kind of relevant context when those officials make claims like Hosemann’s. But right now that’s too much to ask.