Lawmakers leery over chances for voter ID passage

Published 6:00 am Monday, February 16, 2009

Despite the fact that the House’s passage of voter IDlegislation last week was a milestone in the decades-long battleover the issue, local lawmakers are lukewarm about their work anduncertain about the legislation’s future.

House Bill 1533, which establishes the requirement for voters toshow photo identification at the polls, passed the House on a voteof 77-44 as an almost entirely new bill. Seven amendments wereproposed and five passed, transforming the original bill to such anextent that several of its authors had their names removed from thelegislation after the fact.

In the end, House Republicans struck down the bill’s allowancefor a myriad of acceptable forms of ID – such as utility bills andorganization membership cards – and substituted the requirement forgovernment-issued photo ID. The number of days the bill allowed forearly voting was cut in half, and same-day voter registration wasremoved.

House Democrats were able to maintain an exemption for providingvoter ID for voters aged 65 and up, however, and also managed toinclude a suffrage clause that would restore voting rights tonon-violent felons who pay their debts to society. They also wereable to shorten the registration deadline from one month to threedays before an election.

Still, after an all-day debate on the bill in which scores oflawmakers were allowed to speak, seemingly no one is pleased withthe Election Reform Act.

“It’s a watered down version,” said District 92 Rep. BeckyCurrie, R-Brookhaven, who supported the GOP-transformed bill andvoted against the exemption and suffrage amendments. “You give alittle bit, you get a little bit. But you have to have some type ofvoter ID when you have people voting from the grave.”

Even though Currie is dissatisfied with the overall bill, shesaid she hopes the Senate will pass it as is. If the Senateattempts to amend HB 1533, an event that would require it to comeback to the House for concurrence, it will die and likely put theissue off for yet another year.

“If the Senate doesn’t take our bill, the House leadership willjust throw up their hands and say, ‘Fine, we didn’t want itanyway,'” Currie predicted. “The chances of survival I would sayare slim to none.”

District 92 Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, agreed with Currie’sassessment. Evans, who joined Black Caucus members in having hisname removed as an additional author of HB 1533 after helping craftit and then voting against it, believes the Senate will rush thebill through to the governor’s desk.

“If [Lt. Gov. Phil] Bryant has a shred of a brain, he and hiscohorts in the Senate will hold this thing like a hot coal andimmediately pass it in its present form,” he said. “I think theywill accept it the way it is and send it on, because they know theywill not get anything better.”

Evans said he voted against HB 1533 because its originalintentions changed too much. He was dissatisfied that the earlyvoting stipulation was cut from 30 to 15 days, angry about theremoval of the “motor voter” clause that would have allowedsame-day registration and felt requiring a strict, photo-only voterID would disenfranchise many voters.

Offering long-term insight on the voter ID issue, Evanspredicted that the bill’s passage, while on the surface wouldrepresent a Republican victory, would hurt the party over time. Hepredicted the end of voter ID debates would rob Republicans ofpolitical capital.

“[If HB 1533 passes], that takes one of the issues that hasreally been a divider between Democrat and Republican leadershipoff the political spin table,” he said. “It’s not to theirpolitical benefit to let this bill pass.”

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, believes the billwill ultimately be struck down by the U.S. Department of Justice.Moak joined Republicans in supporting HB 1533 because he supportsearly voting and late registration, but he believes theRepublican-led Senate will strip those requirements out and reducethe bill to pure, photo-necessary voter ID.

“When you’ve had a five-hour debate every time you bring thisissue up in the House, the Justice Department knows what’s going onand, in my opinion, they will not approve a straight picture IDcoming from Mississippi,” he said. “It will look like you’veattempted to ram something down someone’s throat.”

Moak said the bill must remain a true voting reform bill,allowing early voting and late registration, to have a chance tobecome law.

“The question is, will cooler heads prevail in the Senate andattempt to work through this? I don’t think so,” he said.