Miss. Senate removes exemption from voter ID bill

Published 10:26 pm Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Republican-controlled Mississippi Senate reversed course Wednesday on part of an election bill by saying that all voters, not just those below retirement age, would have to show photo identification at the polls.

The change came after lobbying by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who says it makes no sense to exempt older voters from an ID requirement.

When senators passed the first version of the bill last month, it included a Democratic-backed provision that said people born before 1946 would not have to prove who they are before getting a ballot. The exemption was an acknowledgment of concerns that an ID requirement could be used to intimidate older black voters who were once subject to Jim Crow laws.

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Senate Elections Committee chairman Terry Burton, R-Newton, said Wednesday that he believes a universal ID requirement would protect the integrity of elections.

Burton has been pushing voter ID for years. He claims he was a victim of voter fraud when he lost a his hometown mayoral race nearly 20 years ago. He said he was 17 votes ahead on election night, but when he went to the coffee shop the next morning someone asked if he had heard about the 20 votes found overnight — all for Burton’s opponent.

Burton said he has tried to avoid mentioning that example because he believes election fraud hurts everybody.

“If it happens one time, it’s one time too many,” Burton said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever stop it all, but we need to stop as much as we can.”

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said a strict ID requirement will disenfranchise people who don’t have a government-issued photo identification. A person who doesn’t know his driver’s license is expired might be denied the chance to vote, Bryan said.

The bill moves to the House for more work. The House has a separate bill that includes voter ID with or without photos and also would expand early voting and allow Election Day registration.

The Senate tangled more than two hours Wednesday before killing another bill that proposed taking away voting rights from almost all convicted felons.

The sponsor, Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said he thinks it’s wrong for people to vote in prison.

The state constitution lists 10 crimes that disqualify a convicted person from voting ranging from murder to perjury to embezzlement. Other crimes ranging from shoplifting to robbery were added to the list in 2004 based on an attorney general’s opinion.

Under current state law, a person convicted of those crimes can ask the Legislature to restore their voting rights.

Several black senators said Nunnelee’s proposal would disproportionately hurt black people.

“This is the most racist piece of legislation I’ve seen,” said Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones, D-Canton.

The bill eventually was sent back to a committee — a procedural move that allowed senators to set aside the proposal without voting on it. The bill died because the deadline for committee action was earlier this week.

The bills are Senate Bills 2548 and 2443.