February 6, 2009
JACKSON -- Voter-ID legislation continues to cause anguished debate and sharp political division that are wearing out Mississippi lawmakers.
"I think all of us would like to put this issue behind us," said Senate Elections Chairman Terry Burton, R-Newton, the state Legislature''s leading advocate of requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.
However, black legislators allied with white Democrats against a voter-ID law have blocked its enactment in recent years.
"For some of us, the issue of voter ID is politically toxic," said Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, one of 50 black lawmakers in the 174-member Legislature.
The push to make voters show proof of who they are has become one of the biggest wedge issues in recent years. Republicans in unison see it as politically popular while Democrats are divided over it.
The Republican-controlled Senate on Wednesday passed for the second time this session a voter-ID bill. It brought the bill back to strip out a Democratic-sponsored provision to exempt elderly people from the voter-ID requirement.
The exemption is aimed mainly at appeasing legislators concerned that an ID requirement could be used to intimidate older blacks whose rights to vote were denied in the past century.
The Senate voted down the exemption 28-22, with the 22 senators for it all Democrats and the Senate''s 25 Republicans along with three Democrats against it.
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and other GOP legislators -- wanting to curb fraud at the polls -- are pushing for the ID requirement similar to what 25 other states have.
The Senate voted 32-17 Wednesday for the bill, sending it like it has in past years to the House, where voter-ID bills have died. However, the House this year has its own committee-passed compromise set for a vote within the next week.
Eager to have a stronger version pulled out of the House Apportionment and Elections Committee, Republicans tried Tuesday to force the Democratic-dominated House to take up legislation pushed by the GOP. They were turned down in a 67-55 vote.
While unsuccessful in getting the bill they favor, Republicans can use how Democrats voted as they campaign against them for re-election, said Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus.
"We''re going to get them on the (voting) board and see how much they want (voter ID)," Chism said. "We''re going to let the folks in their hometowns know how they voted."
''They''re picking a fight''
House Majority Leader Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, said Republicans shouldn''t be so combative in pushing their legislation.
"They''re picking a fight. They''re waging a war that''s unnecessary. We don''t need to wage war at this time. This state and country is in too much (economic) despair to put one party against the other and one race against the other," said Ellis, who is black.
Republicans have accused Democrats of blocking the enactment of a voter-ID law that most Mississippians want.
"It is obvious the Democratic leadership are more interested in playing politics than passing sensible legislation for the state of Mississippi," said House Republican Leader Mark Baker of Brandon.
The House Apportionment and Elections Committee approved on Tuesday a voter-ID bill its sponsors see as a compromise to overcome Democrats'' previous opposition. The bill says a wide variety of identification -- such as a driver''s license, utility bill and credit card -- would be acceptable for casting election ballots. It would exempt people over age 65 from the ID requirement.
House Bill 1533 also includes a "no-excuses" early voting measure. Mississippians are now allowed to vote early only for specific reasons, such as being out of town on election day. The bill also has a measure allowing people to register to vote on election day. Current law requires registration at least one month before elections.
In addition, the bill would allow convicted nonviolent felons to vote if they''re one-time offenders who''ve completed their prison sentences and probation periods and have paid all their fines. Under current law, felons who lose their right to vote must get a bill passed by the Legislature to restore their suffrage.
The bill -- formally titled the Election Reform Act -- is sponsored by a biracial coalition of House Democrats trying to pass a voter-ID bill as Republicans want and combining it with measures making it easier to vote as Democrats favor.
"Political reality is we have to have something here to balance it out," said Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, one of the six black lawmakers co-sponsoring the bill.
However, Republicans have opposed early voting and want a stricter voter-ID requirement. The House bill "is absolutely as weak as it can be," said Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, the chief sponsor of the House GOP-backed bill for photo IDs.
House Elections Chairman Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, acknowledged his committee-adopted bill will be opposed by some blacks who don''t want any voter-ID mandate and by Republicans who want it more restrictive.
"It''s hard to get a consensus on issues that are very emotional," Reynolds said.
"Politics is give and take. You can''t all give and you can''t all take. It''s a balancing act."
To read bills, follow their progress and see how legislators voted, go to the Mississippi Legislature''s Web site: billstatus.ls.state.ms.us. The Web site also has live videocasts of House and Senate floor sessions.
Republican-sponsored Senate Bill 2548 to require photo voter ID:
House Bill 1520 to require photo voter ID:
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