Friday, May 21, 2004
The JFP's Ayana Taylor is the only journalist who has really gotten inside the Voter ID issue--and challenged its supporters to explain just why this regulation is needed. The issue is now before Gov. Haley Barbour's $34,000-a-day special session, along with tort reform.
If you're under 65, you may have to start showing identification at the voting polls starting in 2005 under a compromise bill, HB 1827, passed by the Mississippi House of Representatives. The ID requirement pleases lawmakers, mostly Republicans led by Gov. Haley Barbour, who call for "accountability" in elections, and the age cut-off is a nod to voter ID opponents who fear requiring ID could scare older black voters with wounds still fresh from fighting poll discrimination during segregation.
After an emotional appeal from black lawmakers on March 18 at a House committee meeting, the original bill requiring voter ID, HB 1435, was tabled. In that bill, Republicans had amended voter ID onto language ensuring that affidavit ballots were counted on Election Day by turning them into same-day voter-registration forms. The voter ID bill was then re-introduced April 12, due to calls for "accountability" by both conservatives and much of the state's media.
Rep. Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, says the bill died the first time due to its sneaky appearance. "I don't think that Voter ID was a problem for many of the representatives, but the way it was presented caused a problem with our black colleagues, and out of respect for them, it was voted down."
The bill was brought back up for discussion as a separate entity, and the recent compromises were added. Most significantly, according to theory at least, the age limit will ensure that those most likely to fear voter ID—older blacks who were harassed at the polls in the 1960s and before—will not face an intimidating poll worker. Gunn says that while he respects the fight that African Americans went through to gain the right to vote, he is certain that the problem with voter identification only affects older people. "I have talked with younger black citizens, and they seem to have no problem with presenting identification to vote," Gunn said. He said he discussed the issue with two young black hostesses from Lone Star Steakhouse and a staffer in his office.
Most odd about the voter ID campaign is that little evidence exists to support the need for requiring identification at the polls. Although Mississippi has seen its share of voter intimidation—which opponents argue that requiring IDs often is—voter fraud is not a big issue here. At least not the type of fraud that would be solved with requiring identification.
"Putting an age limit on a bad public policy does not change the fact that it is a bad public policy," said Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP.
"The two biggest problems with elections in Mississippi deal with people being registered in two different counties and voting in both of them. The second area deals with absentee ballots," Johnson added.
That is, few documented reports exist that show that Mississippians are likely to show up at the polls and try to fake their identity. There are many more cases of party officials trying to videotape voters or sit at the table with poll volunteers to intimidate potential voters, including those under 65. These and other scare tactics were evident in last November's elections in the state.
Gunn, though, points to a few incidents of fraud, including poll workers in Hinds County Precinct 57 literally writing in names of voters who had not physically voted. "And this was just what I found after my little bit of research; imagine what else is out there," he said.
But the state's experts on politics and voting say identification is more of a symbolic, and even partisan, gesture than an actual move toward improving the election process. And the evidence isn't there. Joseph Parker, University of Southern Mississippi political scientist, says that voter fraud is "more imagination than it is evidence."
Marty Wiseman, director of Mississippi State's Stennis Institute of Government, agrees: "I wondered what voter ID would really cure. Even with voter ID there will still be problems with the system. I think it is more symbolic that anything else."
Johnson argues that Republicans are adamant about Voter ID because they believe it would keep away voters who oppose them. He says voter ID would be used as another tool to intimidate, suppress and prevent certain voters from coming to the polls, especially low-income-earning, less-educated individuals who already vote in low percentages.
"These are the individuals most likely to be taken advantage of at the polls, regardless of race and age," he said.
Other additions to HB 1827 include restoring the right to vote to non-violent first-time felons, a provision Gunn says was added because members of the Black Caucus had pointed out the disproportionate number of black men in state prisons. Also, the bill includes this provision: Any poll worker caught using the voter ID requirement to intimidate will be charged a $5,000 or receive a year in jail, the bill says.
It seems that Stringfellow is now doing some of the same kind of research that Ayana did in the above piece -- that shows that voter ID might not be the problem that he argued in earlier columns. Read Stringfellow's column today Organizations such as the state NAACP are convinced that voter identification is cosmetic and does little to curb vote fraud. That notion is shared by Electionline.Org, a nonpartisan, non-advocacy group that tracks and studies election reform. Dan Seligson, Electionline.Org's editor, told the AP that vote fraud at polling places was rare and voter identification didn't seem to affect turnout in the 17 states where it is currently law. That punches holes in the Senate's argument against the seniors' exemption and the NAACP's turnout claim. ----- One more point, though: Certainly he's right that it weakens the argument of pro-Voter ID folks -- but I don't see the point that it weakens opponents' claim. I think he's misstating the primary objection of opposing Voter ID: It's not to make the turnuot go up significantly; it is to ensure that not one U.S. citizen is intimidated out of his or her right to vote. This is about *constitutional* rights, which is about the individual, not the majority. It doesn't matter whether Voter ID affects turnout; what matters is the rights of every single individual. This is a profound point to understand. If you base argument rights on what the majority wants or will do, you're missing the point big time.