Judge delays start of changes in Mississippi party primaries

Published 6:57 pm Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A federal judge on Tuesday granted a one-year delay in his order requiring Mississippi to enact a new primary-election system that requires voters to reregister as Democrat, Republican or unaffiliated.

The new system must be in place by Aug. 31, 2008, rather than by next month, according to the latest order by U.S. District Judge W. Allen Pepper Jr. of Cleveland.

Pepper’s ruling takes the pressure off state officials to enact changes in time for the Aug. 7 primaries for statewide, regional, legislative and county offices, and for the March 11, 2008, primaries for federal offices.

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Pepper wrote Tuesday that he recognizes “it is unreasonable to expect the state of Mississippi to pass and preclear a new primary system, gain approval by this court and implement the system overnight.”

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and Secretary of State Eric Clark requested several weeks ago that Pepper delay the changes in the primary system. They said it would be impossible to reregister 1.7 million voters on short notice.

“It’s simply impossible to get it done and I am extremely grateful that Judge Pepper has ordered a delay in reregistration and changing the primary process,” Clark said. “I think the legislature will have time to deal with that in the ’08 regular session and we’ll have time to implement it well.”

Hood also had asked Pepper to reconsider a requirement for voter identification in primaries. Pepper on Tuesday denied that part of Hood’s request.

Hood could not immediately be reached for comment.

Pepper’s original ruling requiring party registration and voter ID came June 8 in a lawsuit filed earlier by the Mississippi Democratic Party Executive Committee.

The Democrats sought to enact a closed primary system to keep non-Democrats from voting in the party’s primaries. Some black Democrats had complained that in some parts of the state, whites sympathetic to Republicans were voting in the Democratic primaries to influence the outcome of those contests.

Democrats did not request voter ID — an issue that has been strongly supported by Republican leaders over the past decade. Pepper, however, said ID would be needed to enforce a new primary system.

“It was the court’s intent to rule that in order to ensure the Democratic Party’s First Amendment right to disassociate from nonmembers, the Legislature would have to, at minimum, require party registration and voter identification, since any other option would be inadequate to ensure the plaintiffs’ right to disassociate,” Pepper wrote Tuesday.

Supporters of voter ID say it would help ensure fair elections. Opponents say ID could be used to intimidate older black voters who once faced poll taxes or threats of violence for trying to vote.

Pepper on Tuesday also denied the Mississippi Republican Party’s request to be exempted from his ruling on restructuring the primary system. And he denied the NAACP’s request to overturn the voter ID portion of the June 8 order.

The judge said Tuesday that on June 8, he recognized the state would need time to enact a new primary system. But he said that at that time none of the political parties had told him that they planned to conduct presidential primaries in March 2008.

Pepper said Tuesday that Hood and Clark made a “reasonable” request to delay the new primary system.

Current Mississippi law does not provide a way for voters to register by party. That leaves people free to vote in a Democratic primary one election and in a Republican primary in another election.

The only current restriction comes during primary runoffs: There is a ban on voting in one party’s runoff after having voted in another party’s primary.

Any changes in Mississippi election laws must be approved, or “precleared,” by the U.S. Justice Department to ensure the changes are fair to minorities.