Candidates for top Miss. offices split over voter ID ruling

Published 4:49 pm Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Republicans running for Mississippi’s top two offices are praising a federal judge’s ruling that says the state needs to require voters to show identification at the polls.

Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are more cautious, saying an ID requirement should not be used to intimidate older voters.

Candidates were asked about the issue during appearances at the Mississippi Press Association’s summer convention in Biloxi. The gubernatorial candidates made back-to-back appearances Friday, and the three candidates for lieutenant governor debated Saturday.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour said he was surprised by U.S. District Judge W. Allen Pepper’s June 8 ruling in a lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party Committee.

The lawsuit, which was filed last year, sought to limit participation in the Democratic Party primary elections. Pepper ruled that political parties have a right to stop nonmembers from voting in their primaries. He also ordered that the state must reregister all voters and require the use of voter identification in the primaries.

Pepper ruled that legislators must make the changes a part of state law. Democrats who filed the lawsuit are asking Pepper to reconsider the ID requirement, which they did not seek.

Several voter ID bills have died in the Mississippi Legislature during the past decade amid arguments that the requirement could intimidate older black people who once faced threats of violence for trying to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Supporters argue that ID would help ensure election integrity.

Barbour told the press group that a voter ID mandate is “appropriate.” But he added: “I do think the court’s saying it has to be a photo ID is probably farther than we need to go at the beginning.”

He said the state Senate has passed several voter ID bills in the past 3 1/2 years, since he became governor. Those have died in the House. Barbour said the bills usually include provisions that would allow forms of ID without photos.

“Maybe 10 years from now, we would make it photo ID,” Barbour said. “I don’t think that’s necessary at the beginning.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Arthur Eaves Jr., a Jackson attorney in private practice, said of Pepper: “I believe that we have an activist judge that has taken it upon himself to create law. I don’t believe that that’s right.”

Eaves said some voters could be intimidated by showing ID at the polls.

“My grandmother … didn’t even have a driver’s license,” Eaves said. “We want to encourage people to vote and participate in our political process. And so I won’t do anything that will diminish that or allow any intimidation of our people.”

State Rep. Jamie Franks, a Democrat running for lieutenant governor, said he supports a voter ID requirement, but he believes people older than 65 should be exempt.

“That judge, I feel, is an activist judge,” Franks said of Pepper. “He’s a Republican, and he’s doing everything he can for the Republican Party. And if he wanted to change the election laws of this state, he should’ve qualified to run for the House or Senate prior to March 1 of this year.”

State Sen. Charlie Ross, a Republican running for lieutenant governor, said Barbour should call lawmakers into special session this year to deal with voter ID legislation.

“You can’t cash a check, can’t rent a $3 movie without showing ID,” Ross said. “I just don’t buy the argument that it is intimidating to anybody. I think that it’s necessary and it can be done properly and it will improve our election process.”

State Auditor Phil Bryant, who faces Ross in the Aug. 7 GOP primary for lieutenant governor, praised Pepper’s decision and noted that it applies only to primaries.

“Any right-thinking person would say certainly now can we extend that to our elections to give … accountability to elections with voter ID,” Bryant said. “I guess the best thing I can say about that lawsuit is, ’Be careful what you ask for.”’

Bryant also said to Franks: “I may be wrong, but I thought Judge Pepper was appointed by Bill Clinton.”

Franks interrupted: “But he was Trent Lott’s roommate.”

Lott is one of Mississippi’s Republican U.S. senators, and several publications have reported over the years that Lott and Pepper were fraternity brothers and roommates at the University of Mississippi in the 1960s. Pepper was appointed to the federal judgeship in 1999, during President Clinton’s second term. Although federal judges are appointed by the president, recommendations for the jobs frequently come from U.S. senators.