October 3, 2012 9:53:17 AM
JACKSON -- Federal officials are pushing Mississippi to do more to prove that voter identification requirements won't discriminate against minorities.
In a letter to Attorney General Jim Hood's office, the U.S. Department of Justice asked for more information about the state's requirement that people present photo identification before voting in person.
In the November 2011 election, voters approved a voter identification amendment to the Mississippi Constitution. In the spring, both chambers of the Republican-majority Legislature voted to put voter ID into law. But because of Mississippi's history of racial discrimination, it's among the states required to get federal approval for any changes to election laws or practices.
Among other items sought by the Justice Department's Voting Section is "the factual basis" for Mississippi's position that photo ID requirements won't discriminate against minority citizens.
Federal officials also seek lists of voters and those issued various state identifications, which could allow them to analyze the law's impact on minority populations.
Hood, a Democrat, said in a prepared statement Tuesday that the law will not be pre-cleared by the Justice Department in time for it to be enforced for the Nov. 6 election, an expectation already accepted among state officials. Some activists didn't like it though. The Mississippi Tea Party sent out an email urging people to show ID when they vote anyway, as a protest.
"It's the consent of the governed that matters here," the group wrote. "Obama's DOJ and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood don't give a rip about that consent, but you already knew that."
The Justice Department has rejected Voter ID requirements in South Carolina and a federal court rejected similar requirements in Texas. Those states are also among the ones that need federal clearance for election changes.
Supporters of voter ID say it's needed to prevent people from voting under others' names. Opponents say there's been little proof of people masquerading as others to cast ballots. They also contend the ID requirement could suppress voter turnout among poor, elderly and minority voters.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, said the issue of whether the referendum had a discriminatory purpose "was decided last November by a vote of all the citizens of Mississippi in a free and fair election."
Hood downplayed the request, saying: "All the DOJ is saying in this response is that they need more details of the state's plan in order to make a determination."
Hood said some of the requested information is already compiled and can be easily provided. Once the state provides the requested information, federal authorities will have 60 days to respond.
The Justice Department also asked to review a detailed description of any measures the state intends to put in place to "ameliorate" potential discriminatory effects, which Hood said would include the rules and regulations being created by Hosemann. The letter indicates Hood's office told the Justice Department to begin its review without those rules in July.
Hosemann said his office has made provisions to offer free photo identifications at circuit clerk offices in each county courthouse, including looking up and verifying birth certificates on the spot. He also said he's negotiating to provide free rides to courthouses for people without transportation. Mississippi also plans to accept some college student IDs.
The Justice Department letter suggests such "mitigating steps" could help Mississippi's case, citing the court's opinion in the Texas case.
"We believe the process of implementation authorized by the Mississippi Legislature and the rules and regulations will show no discrimination against any citizen of Mississippi," Hosemann said in a statement.
A wave of new voter identification requirements have been approved in the past couple years, primarily by Republican-controlled legislatures.
Tuesday, a judge blocked Pennsylvania's voter identification requirement from going into effect for the presidential election.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana's voter ID law in 2008, and Georgia's top court upheld that state's voter ID law. But a federal court panel struck down Texas' voter ID law, and the state court in Wisconsin has blocked its voter ID laws for now. The Justice Department cleared New Hampshire's voter ID law earlier this year, and a federal court is reviewing South Carolina's law after the Justice Department rejected it.