June 19, 2012 11:30:10 AM
JACKSON -- Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said Monday he's trying to determine how many people in Mississippi lack the type of photo identification that might eventually be needed for voting.
In last November's election, 62 percent of Mississippi voters approved a constitutional amendment that would require voters to show a driver's license or other form of photo ID at the polls. House Bill 921, passed this spring by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, aims to put the mandate into law.
Because of Mississippi's history of racial discrimination, it is required by the 1965 Voting Rights Act to get federal approval for any changes in election laws or procedures. Such approval is not guaranteed. In recent months, the Justice Department has rejected ID laws from Texas and South Carolina, amid concerns that they would dilute minority voting strength.
Hosemann and other supporters of voter ID say it will prevent people from masquerading as others to cast ballots. Opponents say there's little evidence that such things are happening.
Opponents also liken voter ID to poll taxes that were used for decades to suppress black citizens' constitutional right to vote. To get past that comparison, supporters said that if ID cards are provided for free by the state, it's not possible to draw parallels between an ID mandate and a poll tax.
The Mississippi bill says anyone without proper identification can get a state-issued photo card at no cost, though no money was set aside to make them during the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Hosemann said that he's asking people to let his office know if they need ID.
"We want to ensure everyone who needs a voter ID receives one when the requirement is approved," Hosemann, a Republican, said in a news release. "By providing us their information early, they will go to the head of the line. We will also solicit free transportation to your county courthouse to anyone who needs transportation."
Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, is among the lawmakers who voted against the ID legislation, citing concerns that an ID requirement could suppress turnout among some groups of voters, including minorities and the elderly.
"I've said all along it's not so much the pure concept of voter ID that's a problem. It's a rushed application with no substantial identification of where a real problem is," Johnson said in a phone interview Monday.
Johnson did not criticize Hosemann. Rather, Johnson said he thinks Hosemann is trying to make sure the ID law is workable, if it gets federal approval.
"I just think the secretary of state realized there are some problems the Justice Department may identify and he's trying to cover every base," Johnson said.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says on its website that 30 states have laws that will require voters to show ID in this November's presidential election. That list does not include Mississippi, whose proposed law awaits federal consideration; or Wisconsin, which briefly had a voter ID law in early 2012 before the law was declared unconstitutional by a state judge.
Hosemann has said the Mississippi voter ID law needs federal approval by September if it is to be used for the presidential election. He said it could take several weeks to issue IDs to people who need them, and the cards won't be issued until the law receives federal clearance.