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Fed appeals court nixes party registration, voter ID ruling

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday overturned a ruling that would have forced Mississippians to register by political party and to show photo identification at the polls to be able to vote.

U.S. District Judge Allen Pepper in Mississippi ruled last year that the state should reregister all voters to allow people to declare themselves as Democrats, Republicans or members of another party. Or, Pepper said, people could register as unaffiliated with any party. Pepper said Mississippi must restructure its party primary system by Aug. 31, 2008.

Under current law, Mississippians do not declare a party affiliation when they register to vote.

Pepper had also ordered the state to enact a voter identification law in time for the 2009 elections.

The Mississippi Democratic Party, which brought the lawsuit in 2006 seeking to keep nonparty members from voting in its primaries, appealed Pepper’s ruling. Some black Democrats have complained that whites sympathetic to Republicans have been voting in the Democratic primaries.

Joining the Democrats in the appeal were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the state and the Mississippi Republican Party.

Ellis Turnage of Cleveland, attorney for the Democratic Party, was out of his office and was not available for comment.

Brad White, executive director of the Mississippi GOP, said the decision puts everyone back to where they were before the Democrats’ lawsuit.

“We continue to say our primaries are open to all individuals who share our beliefs and support Republican candidates. We’re not about making it more difficult for people to vote in our primaries,” White said.

The New Orleans court said Pepper’s ruling spawned a free-for-all on appeal.

The court noted the Democratic Party had appealed the mandatory photo ID requirement. The GOP appealed on grounds that Pepper’s order brought Republicans into a lawsuit they did not support. And attorneys for the Mississippi NAACP opposed the voter ID and re-registration portions of Pepper’s order.

There also were briefs filed by the attorney general, the governor and the secretary of state.

“The state is divided … We will put the parties out of their litigation misery,” wrote Chief Judge Edith H. Jones for the three-judge panel.

Mississippi NAACP president Derrick Johnson said he was pleased the voter ID provision was overturned.

“We see it as a victory for the state of Mississippi that the process worked where elected representatives for the House and Senate set policy for the state and not activist district court judges,” Johnson said.

The Mississippi Legislature is meeting in special session, and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour is asking them to enact voter ID. The proposal passed the Senate last week on a vote largely split along racial lines, but a House committee plans to ignore the issue and kill it.

“The governor remains committed to voter ID as the best means of ensuring fair and fraud-free elections,” Barbour spokesman Pete Smith said Wednesday, responding to the 5th Circuit ruling.

Attorney General Jim Hood applauded the decision.

“It is the state Legislature that has the authority to review and change, if necessary, our state’s primary laws,” Hood said in a statement. “It is up to our state Legislature to decide whether or not we require voter identification.”

Jones said if the Democratic Party had taken steps to keep non-Democrats out of its primaries and been stopped, then the party would have had grounds to sue.

“It is certainly conceivable, for instance, that the party’s mere public announcement of its intent to challenge suspected non-Democrat voters would discourage raiding attempts,” wrote Jones.

However, Jones said whether state law permits party raiding could only be determined if the Democrats tried to stop someone from voting in its primaries.

Jones said the “open-ended nature of the dispute” led Pepper to propose a political remedy.

“When MSDP actually decides to adopt a closed primary, and when the implementation of state law has a demonstrated impact on the conduct of primary elections, a justifiable case or controversy will exist,” the 5th Circuit said.

Wednesday’s ruling was issued by a panel of three 5th Circuit judges — Jones, W. Eugene Davis and Emilio M. Garza.