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Voter ruling raises election questions

Circuit clerks statewide are anxiously waiting to learn how thevoting process in Mississippi may change in the wake of a judge’sruling late last week.

U.S. District Judge W. Allen Pepper ruled Friday in favor of alawsuit by the Democratic Party that could force state voters toregister by political party and limit primary electionparticipation to party affiliation. The ruling ordered the state tohave a party registration system and voter identification laws inplace by 2008.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how this voter law worksout,” said Lincoln County Circuit Clerk Terry Lynn Watkins.

All of the state’s voters would have to reregister should theruling stand. Voters not wanting to affiliate themselves with aparty would be able to designate themselves as unaffiliated, orindependent, under the ruling.

Watkins said if state legislators comply with the ruling, heroffice would have to notify the 25,906 registered voters of LincolnCounty that they would need to reregister to continue to vote inelections.

“A great number of people, if this ruling stands, will knowabout it through the media, but that still leaves a lot of peoplewho won’t,” Watkins said. “Trying to locate those who don’t knowwill be time-consuming and costly. We’ll have to notify them all bymail.”

Although reregistering voters is likely to be difficult, it isnot what worries Watkins the most.

The judge’s ruling gave authority to the parties to determinewhether their primary elections would be open or closed toindependents. Conceivably, the parties could limit primaryelections to their memberships and lock independents out of theprocess.

“My biggest concern throughout this whole process isdisenfranchising a voter,” Watkins said. “People who want to takethe time to vote should be able to vote and should not be penalizedbecause they did not want to declare a party.”

The ruling will not affect the 2007 elections for state andcounty officials. However, it could possibly affect the 2008presidential elections, which typically boasts the highest turnoutof voters.

Legislators have until April 1 to pass legislation addressingthe ruling. Watkins, though, had some concerns about being able tohave a new system ready for the 2008 contests.

“It really wouldn’t be realistic, or even possible, to have itdone by next year’s election,” Watkins said. “There’s a still a lotof unanswered questions in my mind.”

Further aggravating voter apathy, she said, is the requirementto institute voter identification at the polls. Voteridentification would require voters to use a driver’s license orother form of identification with a photo to prove who they arewhen they cast a vote.

“I think a lot of people are concerned that they’ll take awaythe secrecy of the ballot, which is what we’ve always tried topreserve,” Watkins said. “Personally, I don’t have a problem withdeclaring a party or with voter ID. On the other hand, it has to behandled correctly and requiring everyone to reregister is quite anundertaking.”