Hood asks federal judge to delay party registration until ’09

Published 4:53 pm Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A large number of Mississippians will be disenfranchised if a federal judge stands by his order requiring re-registration of all voters by the March 2008 party primaries, Attorney General Jim Hood says.

In court papers filed Friday, Hood asks U.S. District Judge W. Allen Pepper to delay a party-registration system until the 2009 elections, when most cities choose mayors and other officials. Hood also asks Pepper to clarify the court order mandating a photo identification system for voters.

Hood said a complete reregistration of Mississippi’s 1.7 million voters will take at least a year. As one of three members of the state Elections Commission, Democrat Hood is a defendant in a lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party last year to try to keep non-Democrats from voting in the party’s primaries.

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On June 8, Pepper ruled in the case that political parties have a right to stop nonparty members from voting in their primary elections. He said party registration and voter photo ID would accomplish that.

Pepper said the Aug. 7, 2007, party primaries for statewide, legislative, regional and county offices can continue as scheduled. However, Pepper said no party primaries could be held in 2008 without both party registration and voter ID in place; the primaries for federal offices are set for March 11. Pepper’s order did not apply to general elections.

The Mississippi Republican Party was not involved in the lawsuit seeking to restrict primary participation, but Pepper said his decision applies to all party primaries in the state.

On Monday, the state Republican Party and the Mississippi NAACP asked Pepper to let them intervene in the lawsuit. By Tuesday, Pepper had not ruled on any of the motions filed in response to his June 8 order.

The GOP said Pepper’s ruling had drawn it into the lawsuit, which it had ignored because only the Democratic Party was involved. Jackson attorney Michael Wallace, representing the Republicans, said the GOP now wants to be heard because Pepper’s order “has turned into a dispute involving every voter in Mississippi.”

Wallace said the Republican Party “seeks only to be left alone to conduct Republican primaries” under the law as exists until the Legislature changes it.

The NAACP, in documents filed by former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Fred Banks Jr., said voter ID “could harm participation of many voters who are elderly and poor — a disproportionate number of whom are African-American.”

Banks said voter ID is not necessary to enforce problems Pepper found with the Democratic primaries. The court, Banks said, “should not coerce the state Legislature into such a sweeping change in electoral practices when the change is unnecessary to cure the violation.”

Plaintiffs did not ask for a voter ID system. Many Democrats in the state have long opposed voter ID amid critics fears that the requirement could be used to intimidate older black people who once faced threats of violence for trying to vote.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Ellis Turnage of Cleveland on June 15 asked Pepper to drop the voter ID requirement. Turnage also asked that Pepper apply his order to the 2007 primaries or give Democrats authority to adopt a method of keeping non-Democrats from voting in the party’s contests this August.

Mississippi now has an open primary system, meaning voters don’t have to register by party and can vote in any primary they like. The only restriction comes during the runoffs: A person who votes in one party’s primary may not then switch over and vote in the other party’s primary runoff.

The lawsuit was filed because some members of the Democratic Party believe white Republican voters cast ballots in Democratic primaries to manipulate the outcome of elections, Turnage has said.

Pepper said gave the Legislature until April 1, 2008, to pass laws implementing his order. He said the state should report back to him by June 10, 2008, on whether the U.S. Justice Department cleared the laws. The department oversees changes in Mississippi election laws to ensure fairness to minorities.

Hood — joined by Secretary of State Eric Clark, a Democrat who’s also on the state Elections Commission — said in the court filings Friday that a new Legislature convening in January would have too little time to meet Pepper’s deadlines before the March 11 federal primaries.

Hood and Clark said Pepper must reconsider his order to avoid “large scale voter disenfranchisement through missed deadlines, hurriedly conceived policies or a deluge of voter reregistration.”

Hood, in asking for a clarification on voter ID, said Pepper “did not find that persons were attempting to illegally vote in primaries by falsely identifying themselves as registered voters.”

“It is unclear whether the court has ordered the Mississippi Legislature to enact a voter photo identification requirement if the state retains a partisan primary system, or is the court suggesting that voter photo identification is but one of many remedial options that should be considered by the Legislature,” Hood wrote.

Clark did not join Hood in seeking clarification on voter ID. The third member of the state Elections Commission is Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who has not filed court papers to respond to Pepper’s ruling.