Black Voices

Mississippi Voter ID Law Rejected Overwhelmingly By Blacks, Supported By Whites

When Mississippi residents last year voted in favor of a ballot initiative amending the state's constitution to require voters to present government-issued photo identification at the polls, it was seen as a strong public affirmation of the Republican initiative.

Unlike nearly a dozen other states that recently pushed similar bills through their legislatures against waves of opponents arguing the laws were unconstitutional and would disenfranchise minority and elderly voters, the people themselves in Mississippi had spoken: 62 percent for the amendment, 38 percent against it.

But a recent report from the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law reveals a clearer picture of just which voices were heard in Mississippi. According to the report, more than 75 percent of non-white voters rejected the ballot measure, while more than 82 percent of their white counterparts supported it.

The gulf between those who voted for and against Initiative 27 was as pronounced as the long, complicated history of racial and partisan politics in the Deep South -- and Mississippi in particular. Perhaps the state's minority voters fear history is repeating itself.

"Minority voters in Mississippi are used to devices and voter registration tricks that were used to try to keep them off the voting rolls. They looked at what was being proposed and decided this was not in their best interest and rejected it pretty overwhelmingly," said Bob Kengle, co-director of the Lawyers' Committee's Voting Rights Project. "It can be hard, I'll admit, to tell the difference sometimes between racial politics and partisan politics, in Mississippi and other states in the South especially, but there's a very clear racial dimension to this when you look at it in the historical context."

In fact, Democratic officials have blasted the slew of new election and voter ID laws across the country as a continued assault on key Democratic voting blocs, including black and Latino voters -- a blitzkrieg ahead of the 2012 elections in which minorities will be key to President Barack Obama's bid for reelection.

"Our analysis shows that Mississippi's voter ID law is another example of a law with a racially discriminatory effect being implemented over minority voters' strong objections," said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee. "Seventy-five percent of minorities in the state said no to having to comply with what amounts to a modern-day poll tax in order to exercise their fundamental right to vote."

In 1890, some 20 years after the fall of Reconstruction, Mississippi enacted a series of eligibility requirements for voters, specifically aimed at blacks and poor whites. Poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses effectively reversed the voting strength of black voters, who constituted a huge segment of the population in the former slave-holding state.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, putting an end to such voter suppression mechanisms. But by that time, the Ku Klux Klan and other groups had embarked on a violent campaign to try to preserve their segregated, white-dominated society. Mississippi, as much as any other state in the South, is steeped in the blood of battered and murdered African Americans and civil and voting rights activists of all races -- including perhaps the best-known victims, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

Because of that history of racism, any new election laws in Mississippi must be cleared by the Justice Department under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. South Carolina and Texas, which have passed similar voter ID laws, receive the same oversight. The department recently blocked South Carolina's measure because the department found it would likely negatively affect minority voters. South Carolina has hired former Justice Department official Christopher Coats to help the state fight back, and the state's attorney general, Alan Wilson, said he will sue the Justice Department within the next two weeks. The department is also investigating the new voter ID law in Texas.

Republicans across the country have said these measures are important to protect against voter fraud, although there seems to be scant evidence that such fraud is taking place. The Mississippi law "is part of preserving the integrity of the election process," Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-Miss.) told the Clarion-Ledger not long after the ballot measure passed.

Meanwhile, civil rights and labor groups, including the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, have waged campaigns against the new voter ID laws.

"The future of the South is rushing to the past," said Rickey Hill, a professor of black politics and theory at Mississippi Valley State University. "If you look at the new immigration laws proposed throughout the South and the voter ID laws, which amount to racial disenfranchisement, and you take these things together, what we are seeing in the American South is a racial redemption. Folk are trying to reclaim the South as the bastion of white domination."

Hill likened the one-party South of the past, when anti-civil rights Democrats fought against desegregation before switching to the Republican Party, to what he described as today's one-party South dominated by many Republicans cut from the same cloth.

While blacks, who constitute 37 percent of the state's population, have become a part of Mississippi's mainstream, at least "cosmetically," Hill said, deep divides remain. And the vote over Initiative 27 exemplifies that division.

For the first time since Reconstruction, Hill pointed out, Republicans dominate both houses of the state legislature. Although many more blacks have been elected to public office, the majority of the state legislature, county boards, county lawyers and county financial officers across the state are still white, Hill said.

"While there has been marginal change in the American South in terms of the participation of black people in public life, the South, when it comes down to it, is still controlled by whites," Hill said.

D'Andra Orey, chairman of the political science department at Jackson State University, said, "I think the white electorate are extremely cognizant of the fact that [this bill] would minimize the voting, or rather dilute the voting strength, of African Americans."

Orey noted that the current voter ID laws differ from historical voter suppression efforts in that their language is not racially specific. "This is done under the guise of a subtle racial appeal," he said, "with a subtle racial outcome, where you can say it isn't racial because it applies to everyone."

According to the NAACP and Democratic officials, some 25 percent of African Americans -- as well as 18 percent of Latinos and whole segments of the elderly -- do not have government-issued photo IDs.

"Some people are probably going to fall through the cracks. People are going to be discouraged from attempting to register in the first place, or prevented because they are unable to obtain the underlying documents needed to get a photo ID or because they just don't have their ID on Election Day," said Kengle of the Lawyers' Committee.

For years after the Voting Rights Act passed, Mississippi fought compliance tooth and nail, according to historians and political analysts. Multiple lawsuits were brought against the state in the 1980s and 1990s, charging violation of minority voting rights.

In 1987, the Lawyers' Committee, working with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, managed to invalidate Mississippi's dual registration system, which required people to register twice, once for local and once for state elections. African Americans had far less access to county registrar offices, and in many jurisdictions white voters were expressly made aware of this dual requirement while blacks were not, according to the committee.

Similarly, in 1995, the Lawyers' Committee successfully challenged a discriminatory voter registration system in the state. To avoid compliance with the federal National Voter Registration Act of 1993 -- more popularly called the motor voter act, but dubbed the welfare voter law by then-Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice -- the state had again mandated two separate voter registration tracks. Eventually the Justice Department also reviewed and objected to the system.

"We've never stopped fighting to get our vote to count in this country," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has battled for voting rights throughout the South for decades. "And the states that have denied our rights to vote have never stopped trying to get out from under the [federal] oversight."

Jackson said that he sees the voter ID laws as an attempt at "shaving" votes from the Democrats. Pointing to President Obama's slim 2008 victory in some states, Jackson warned that Republicans efforts nationally could affect votes and voter turnout on Obama's behalf in 2012. He said the confluence of race and politics is not isolated to Mississippi, but it's felt more acutely in the South because of "racial lines that are still very rigid."

"It is now national, it's Wisconsin and Indiana. It's an ideology, a 10th Amendment ideology. And there are clear patterns emerging," Jackson said. "It absolutely will have an impact."

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