Push to salvage voter ID bill fails

March 10, 2009



JACKSON -- The Senate failed by one vote Monday to resurrect a voter identification measure killed last week by Republicans who object to other provisions in the bill that would make it easier to vote. 


The Senate voted 32-17 for the resolution, but with 67 percent required to bring back dead bills, it failed to reach the 33-vote threshold. 


The key to the legislation''s failure Monday was a Democrat who previously supported voter-ID bills. Sen. Ezell Lee, of Picayune, voted against Monday''s measure; Lee is white. 


A racially polarizing issue that has badgered the Legislature for years, voter ID should be shelved for now, said Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus. 


"It''s wearing us out, and we can''t get it," said Brown, who voted to bring the voter-ID bill back Monday but is ready to move on to other issues. "It comes a time to throw in the towel and fight another day." 


A House-passed bill for voter ID and other election reforms was killed last week in the Republican-led Senate Elections Committee. A more restrictive Senate-passed bill died as well in the House Apportionment and Elections Committee. 


Senate Republicans said they don''t like measures the Democratic-dominated House put in its bill that would loosen the state''s voter-registration and early-voting laws to encourage more people to participate in elections. In addition, the bill would''ve made it easier for people convicted of nonviolent crimes to get their voting rights restored. 


GOP Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who heads the Senate, said legislation should only require voter ID. 


Bryant and other Republicans say they want to curb fraud at the polls by requiring people to show a government-issued photograph of themselves when they vote. This prompts heated protests from black lawmakers who see this as a voting barrier much like poll taxes or literacy tests used in the 20th century to keep blacks from voting. 


Of the 24 states that have a voter-ID requirement, seven specify that a photograph be shown to prove identification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 


A biracial coalition of Senate Democrats -- 11 black and six white senators -- voted to block GOP senators'' attempt to bring the voter-ID legislation back to life Monday. 


Sen. Eric Powell, of Corinth, a black Democrat who represents a majority-white district, has supported the ID legislation in the past, but he didn''t vote Monday. 


Republicans are trying to get a proposition on the ballot next year to let voters bypass the Legislature and get a voter-identification requirement in the state constitution. 


If enough petition signatures -- about 90,000 -- are gathered by next October, the constitutional initiative would be reviewed by the 2010 Legislature and then put on the November 2010 ballot for voters to ratify or reject. 


The House bill included a photo-ID provision along with provisions to allow "no-excuse" early voting. Mississippians are now permitted to vote early only for specific reasons, such as being ill or out of town on election day. The bill would''ve let all voters cast ballots in the 20 days leading up to the Saturday before election day. 


Many Republicans say early voting could foster fraud. Bryant said it would "compromise fair elections." Sen. Merle Flowers, R-Southaven, described early voting as a "poison pill" that House Democrats added to the voter-ID bill. 


However, Democrats say early voting would increase turnout at the polls, which has been low in recent years. There are 31 states offering some sort of early voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 


House Bill 1533 would''ve also allowed people to register to vote up to three days before an election. Current law requires registration at least one month before election day. 


After years of voter-ID bills being killed in the Legislature, the proposed constitutional initiative was filed last month with the secretary of state by Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall. It would put into the Mississippi Constitution the mandate for people to have a government-issued photo identification to vote. This could be a state driver''s license.