2 Miss. lawmakers move voter ID debate to court

Published 12:52 am Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Democratic state lawmaker is asking a judge to dismiss a Republican colleague’s lawsuit that seeks to clarify the process Mississippi citizens can use to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

The outcome could affect the effort by Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, to gather signatures for a voter-identification issue he wants to put on statewide ballots. Fillingane said Thursday he already has at least 1,000 signatures of the 90,000 needed. He’s proposing a state constitutional amendment that would require people to show a driver’s license or other ID before casting a ballot.

Fillingane said he doesn’t want to waste time gathering too many signatures in one part of the state and not enough in another.

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“Now, in my opinion, is the precise time we need some direction,” he said Thursday.

Fillingane is asking a Hinds County chancery judge to clarify whether the signatures should come from Mississippi’s five former U.S. House districts or the four current ones.

Rep. Credell Calhoun, D-Jackson, filed papers this week seeking to block Fillingane’s request for a court ruling. A hearing for both lawmakers’ requests is set for May 11.

Since 1992, the Mississippi Constitution has said that no more than one-fifth of the signatures must come from each congressional district. The one-fifth requirement was written when Mississippi had five U.S. House seats. The state dropped to four seats in 2002, but the initiative requirements have not been updated.

At the request of Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, the state attorney general’s office issued a legal opinion in January saying signatures should come from the five former districts. Fillingane said he wanted clarity from the court because the attorney general’s opinion is nonbinding.

Calhoun said Thursday that Fillingane had a chance to pass a voter ID bill this year, but Fillingane and three Republican colleagues helped kill it in the Senate Elections Committee because they objected to early voting provisions. The surprise move angered many Republicans.

Calhoun said Mississippi’s current initiative process dilutes the principle of one person, one vote.

“Everybody knows the process, as currently drafted, will not meet constitutional standards and any vote on initiatives will be successfully challenged and defeated in court,” Calhoun said in a news release. “It is a waste of time gathering signatures and a waste of taxpayers’ money for the process of verifying tens of thousands of signatures.”

Calhoun said laws that govern voting procedures, including requiring ID, should be changed only by the Legislature.

Fillingane said Thursday that he “respectfully, completely” disagrees with Calhoun’s arguments.

Republicans and some conservative Democrats have been pushing voter ID bills in the Legislature for more than a decade, but those bills have all died.

Supporters say it’s needed to head off voter fraud. Opponents say there’s little proof that people have tried to vote under others’ names. They also say an ID requirement could diminish turnout among older black voters who were subject to poll taxes and literacy tests decades ago.

Even as the bill was being killed, Fillingane was already working on plans for the statewide petition drive to try to get voter ID on the ballot and into the state Constitution. Fillingane has a February 2010 deadline to gather signatures for his initiative.

Some Democrats have accused Fillingane of trying to put a voter ID amendment on the ballot to increase conservative turnout in either the 2010 congressional elections or the 2011 election for governor and other statewide offices.