July 15, 2013 9:43:36 AM
JACKSON -- Because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Mississippi and other states with a history of racial discrimination no longer need federal preclearance to change their own voting laws.
Now, it's time for Mississippi to prove what many of its politicians have been saying: That the state has matured, and that people won't try to disenfranchise their fellow citizens.
"We're not the same old Mississippi that our fathers' fathers were," Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, declared hours after the Supreme Court handed down its June 25 decision in a case from Shelby County, Ala.
However, some Mississippi voting-rights experts still see evidence of racially divided politics. Among them is Carroll Rhodes of Hazlehurst, an attorney who has led litigation for more than 35 years to increase black voting and representation.
"Instead of 'Mississippi has changed,' I would say that 'Mississippi has been changed,'" Rhodes told The Associated Press this past week. "Mississippi did not change on its own. There were thousands of voting rights lawsuits that were filed on behalf of African-American voters from cities, counties and even statewide to get the number of black elected officials we have today."
Rhodes points out that 48 years after the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 took effect, Mississippi still hasn't elected a black statewide official. And, while poll taxes and literacy tests are long gone, he said a voter identification law could suppress participation by poor or minority residents.
In November 2011, 62 percent of Mississippi voters approved a state constitutional amendment that says everyone must show government-issued photo ID before voting.
Mississippi's population is 60 percent white and 37 percent black. The voter ID initiative passed by wider margins in counties with higher percentages of white residents. It failed in 11 counties, all of which are majority-black. (These 11 are not the only majority-black counties, though.)
In 2012, Mississippi legislators passed a bill to put voter ID into law. To fulfill the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act, both measures were sent to the U.S. Justice Department for evaluation of whether they'd diminish minorities' voting strength.
Until June 25, Mississippi voter ID remained in limbo. The ruling erased the need for federal preclearance.
Hosemann said he thinks the June 2014 federal primaries will be the first time voters will have to show identification.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has long said Mississippi should come out from under the preclearance requirement. This past week, Bryant said the majority of justices "validated some of our beliefs" that Mississippi has emerged from its past: "We encourage voter registration, from every segment of the state."
AP asked the governor if there's a correlation between the Voting Rights Act and the election of significant numbers African-American officials in Mississippi.
"Of course it is," Bryant said. "I think some of that would've naturally taken place. Hopefully, we have grown, we have learned, generational changes have occurred. But the law did its job in the early days.
"When you think of people in this state who were being assassinated because they were simply trying to get people to register to vote, something had to be done about it," Bryant said. "I think the federal and state government applied the right amount of enforcement against people who were murdering, who were intimidating, who were threatening. That came to an end."
Mississippi government did very little in the 1960s, and earlier, to punish people who were killing, threatening or intimidating those who pushed to ensure black citizens could vote. Such disregard of civil rights, by Mississippi and other states of the old Confederacy, spurred Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.