Attempt to revive voter ID fails in Miss. Senate

Published 11:28 pm Tuesday, March 10, 2009

An effort to revive a voter identification bill, likened by one critic to “Frankenstein” because people keep trying to pump life into it, was narrowly rejected Monday by the Mississippi Senate.

A small group of Senate Republicans killed the bill last week, igniting harsh criticism from their own political base. Some of the same lawmakers led the effort to resurrect the bill.

The Senate fell one vote short of the 33 needed for the two-thirds majority it would’ve taken to revive a dead bill. Seventeen senators voted against bringing the measure back.

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Supporters say requiring voters to show a driver’s license or other identification at the polls would help protect the integrity of elections. Opponents say there’s been little proof that people are trying to vote under others’ names. They also say an ID requirement could be used to intimidate older black voters who were once subject to Jim Crow laws.

Sen. David Jordan, a Democrat from Greenwood, used the Frankenstein analogy.

Jordan, 74, also said he and many other black Mississippians experienced harassment and threats for challenging a system decades ago that kept them from exercising their constitutional right to vote.

“It has everything to do with race,” Jordan told white colleagues who said their push for ID is not intended to suppress the black vote. “We suffered the consequences of slavery, discrimination. We did. You didn’t.”

Monday’s vote was not entirely along racial lines; some white Democrats voted with black senators to block the bill. One white Democrat and two black Democrats did not vote. Of those who didn’t vote, Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory, who’s white, has opposed voter ID, as has Sen. Johnnie Walls of Greenville, who’s black. Sen. Eric Powell of Corinth, a black Democrat who represents a majority-white district, has voted for ID in the past.

Voter ID has been one of the Mississippi Republican Party’s top issues for more than a decade — and some Democrats accuse Republicans of wanting to keep the issue unresolved as a way of keeping conservatives riled up.

Republican Sen. Merle Flowers of Southaven, who led the effort to kill the ID bill last week, said he objected to the bill’s provisions that would allow people to start voting 15 days before an election. Under current law, Mississippi voters may vote early by absentee ballot, but only for specific reasons such as knowing that they’ll be out of town on election day.

One of Flowers’ allies in killing the election bill, Republican Sen. Joey Fillingane of Sumrall, is starting an initiative to put a voter-ID constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot — a move that could boost conservative turnout in either 2010, when congressional races will be decided, or in 2011, when all 174 legislative seats and races for governor and other statewide positions are up for grabs.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who’s expected to run for governor in two years, said he supports Fillingane’s ballot initiative. Bryant issued a statement late Monday saying he supported the effort to revive the comprehensive election bill, even though he remains opposed to early voting.

The House Elections Committee killed a separate voter ID bill last week, but that was not a surprise to many Capitol insiders. The House committee chairman, Democrat Tommy Reynolds of Charleston, said representatives had a chance to express their opinions about voter ID during a long and emotional debate last month. The bill that passed the House in mid-February is the same one killed by the Senate last week.

The resolution is Senate Concurrent Resolution 627. The bill is House Bill 1533.