Congress Speaks on Voting Rights–and Mississippi Hollers Back

The intersection between what congressional Democrats and state Republicans are attempting around voting shows a tragic collision in which democracy, citizens of color, and many living in poverty will be the casualties.

By Brentin Mock May 18, 2012

Yesterday, Democrats in Congress unveiled the Voter Empowerment Act of 2012, legislation aimed at strengthening election procedures for voters. On the same day, Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law a bill mandating voters show photo ID before hitting the polls, a law that was passed by ballot referendum by 62 percent of voters. 

While Mississippi Democrats were invited to join the governor’s signing ceremony, none joined. Similarly, no Republicans were present for the congressional Democrats’ introduction of their voter bill. Both pieces of legislation will face challenges coming online. The intersection between what Democrats are attempting in Congress and what Republicans are attempting at the state level–in Mississippi and beyond–around voting shows a tragic collision from which democracy, citizens of color, and many without wealth and resources will be the casualties.

Speaking about the Voter Empowerment bill he co-sponsored, Democrat Whip Steny Hoyer said, "Just six months from a presidential election and amid an unprecedented drive to impose new restrictions on who can vote in states across the country, Democrats will fight for the right to vote and for the integrity of our electoral system. This bill is a major step towards greater accountability and broader access."

Using similar language, Mississippi Gov. Bryant said the voter ID law, "makes it easy to obtain a photo ID and put it in the hands of all voters. Our hope is to increase participation in the voting process. … We try and believe that it is our job to encourage this process but also bring about integrity."

Both make claims to protect the electoral system’s integrity and improve access to it, but they can’t both be right while supporting laws that oppose each other. The Voter Empowerment Act doesn’t actually address voter ID issues, which is currently being addressed through litigation, but it would add protections against problems involving voter registration, poll-watching guidelines, and ex-felon rights restoration.

Mandating voters to show photo ID is just one more obstacle, yet none of these barriers have been recognized as such by the people pushing through new voting laws. Standing with Gov. Bryant as he signed the photo voter ID law was Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who doesn’t acknowledge the challenges the law will present for voters because he’s focused on the challenge to the law will likely draw from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Ole Miss?

Before the law can go into effect, it has to pass muster with DOJ. DOJ has powers under the Voting Rights Act to investigate new election laws in any of its covered jurisdictions, including Mississippi. All too aware of this, Hosemann has already started instigating a fight with DOJ, fearful the voter ID law he fought so hard for might get blocked per Texas and South Carolina.

Those two states have not proven that their voter ID laws weren’t passed with discriminatory intent, or that they won’t have discriminatory impacts. But Hosemann thinks Mississippi doesn’t need to defend itself on racial grounds, despite the archival blood of numerous civil rights activists lynched and slain for helping black people vote.

"This is not my father’s Mississippi," Ryan Nave at Jackson Free Press reported Hosemann saying earlier this month. It’s not. Today’s Mississippi nominated an African American to run for governor on the Democratic ticket, which is historic; it also produced the white kids who ran James Craig Anderson over with their truck, killing him when not calling him "nigger."

For the voter ID bill, Hosemann is willing to run past his own attorney general and DOJ to take the law straight to a federal court for approval. A "sunshine" bill passed earlier this year allows state officials to use outside law firms if they don’t want to deal with Attorney General Jim Hood, who’s a Democrat and who pissed Mississippi Republicans off when he refused to sue to block President Obama’s healthcare reform law. Almost $500,000 was budgeted by the state strictly for litigation around the law.

Before DOJ even had the chance to look at the voter ID bill, Hosemann publicly accused the department of prejudice. The state secretary’s proof: a Facebook update found from a DOJ staffer who wrote "disgusting and shameful" in reference to Mississippi. Except the Facebook post wasn’t about Mississippi government or about voter ID laws. It was written in response to the University of Southern Mississippi students who shouted "where’s your green card?" at a Puerto Rican basketball player during March Madness. Stephanie Gyamfi, the DOJ staffer in question, wasn’t reviewing the Mississippi voter ID law, as DOJ’s voting division chief T. Christian Herren Jr. has tried to explain.

Hosemann’s source for the Facebook fail was J. Christian Adams, editor of the conservative blog who recently told white Tea Partiers at the "True the Vote" conference that they were the "true heirs of the civil rights movement," not opponents like the NAACP and DOJ. Adams believes DOJ has a racist agenda against white Americans. Standing with Hosemann as he made the faux-Facebook claim was Anita Moncrief, a black woman who is popular with conservatives for her barbs at DOJ and her allegations that Obama was put in office to unfold a "socialist wishlist" devised by ACORN, her former employer.

If that doesn’t show a lack of integrity, it certainly shows a lack of good faith in the federal government, which intervened to allow many people who look like Moncrief to vote at all. This is the team in Gov. Bryant’s shadow as he works to "increase voter participation."

Congress Joins the Debate

Back to the Voter Empowerment Act. Its primary impact would be to automate voter registration through the federal government and through online services, as well as to institute Election Day registration to make it easier on voters, a quarter of whom are not registered. These options are all opposed by people like Adams and his True the Vote colleagues Hans von Spakovsky of Heritage Foundation–who wrote a letter to a Mississippi newspaper defending the voter ID law by citing the debunked Facebook DOJ-bias claim–and John Fund, who in his book "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy" recognized Hosemann for linking voter fraud to poverty.

The congressional bill would also prohibit intimidation of voters at the polls and "voter caging," the process of sending out mail to see what comes back as "undeliverable" and then using that info to create lists for purging voter rolls. Both tactic are encouraged by True the Vote activists.

States with same day registration [SDR] and Election Day registration [EDR] have had greater voter turnout than states without, which has been true for decades. Voter ID laws haven’t existed long enough to make any empirical conclusion about their impacts on turnout. The 2008 presidential election was the first and only one when they were employed, but turnout was up everywhere because of the historical candidacy of Obama.

I’m willing to bet that allowing people to vote freely and fairly, without being badgered about their address or having the correct ID would do more to help rather than hurt turnout. So which is the better path to election "integrity" and "access," the people who want to steamroll over state attorney generals and the federal government to place unnecessary obstacles in front of voters, or the folks who want to make it easier for folks to get registered? The answer lies in the path with the least number of people tread over.

Read more about the Voter Empowerment Act from Ari Berman at The Nation here.