By Barbara Arnwine
The Department of Justice’s recent decision to deny preclearance of South Carolina’s government-issued photo voter ID law under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act shines the spotlight more brightly on the racially discriminatory impact of these laws. Mississippi is another Section 5 covered state worth taking a close look at in light of recent events. With the passage of Initiative 27 in November 2011 (requiring Mississippians to provide a government issued photo ID in order to vote) by a 62%-38% margin, Mississippi added to its ugly history of election laws that have a disproportionately negative effect on African Americans.
Will of the people?
More like a disenfranchising law being implemented over minority voters’ strong objections. An analysis by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law found the state’s non-White minority overwhelmingly rejected the initiative by more than 75%, while the state’s White majority supported it by more than 82%.
Proponents of voter identification laws often cite public support for them in response to the argument that they undermine the ability of minority voters to cast a ballot. While on their surface many public opinion polls may demonstrate broad based support, the Mississippi vote shows how racially polarized such support really is. When given a chance to express their opinion at the ballot box (Mississippi is the first state with a significant minority population to have photo voter ID on the ballot), minorities overwhelmingly voted their disapproval.
Our nation was founded on the principles that the rights of the minority should not be abridged by the will of the majority. As a result of the Mississippi vote, thousands of Mississippians who went to the polls this past November to vote “no” on Initiative 27 may be turned away next November.
In rejecting South Carolina’s law, DOJ cited the fact that registered minority voters were 20% less likely to possess a DMV-issued photo ID than their White counterparts. That number is consistent with the Brennan Center for Justice’s 2006 study that found that 25% of voting age African Americans lack government-issued photo ID, compared to just eight percent of their White counterparts.
In total, the study reports that five million eligible voters could find it harder to cast ballots in 2012. Minority voters in Mississippi – many of whom are old enough to remember poll taxes and literacy tests – understood this disparity deeply and soundly rejected suppressive voter ID at the ballot box.
The Lawyers’ Committee has a long history fighting voter suppression in Mississippi. In 1987, the Lawyers’ Committee, along with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, successfully invalidated the state’s dual registration requirements. First enacted in 1892, the law was part of a package of provisions with the express purpose of disenfranchising Black citizens of Mississippi (the law resulted in a 25% registration gap between White and African American voters). Under the law, Mississippians were required to register twice – once with the county clerk for county, state and federal elections, and once with the municipal clerk for municipal elections. African Americans had far less access to county registrar offices, and in many jurisdictions White voters were expressly made aware of this dual requirement while Blacks were not.
In 1995, the Lawyers’ Committee again successfully challenged a discriminatory voter registration law in the state (which included the Supreme Court deciding that Mississippi was required to submit this voting change for federal review). In order to avoid compliance with the National Voter Registration Act, dubbed the “Welfare Voter” law by then-Governor Kirk Fordice, the state again implemented two voter registration systems. NVRA registration forms – available at social service agencies – were only accepted for federal elections and state voter registration forms available only at county clerks’ offices could be used for all elections. At DMV offices that served predominantly White citizens, applicants were offered both the NVRA and the state forms.
Conversely, at social service agencies serving predominantly African American citizens, applicants were only offered the NVRA form. After reviewing the change, the Department of Justice determined that the law had a “retrogressive” effect on Black voting strength and was implemented and maintained in a manner indicating improper racial considerations.
Mississippi must submit its government-issued photo voter ID law for preclearance to the Department of Justice or the District Court of the District of Columbia because it is covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
In a recent speech in Austin, Texas, Attorney General Eric Holder declared that “despite so many decades of struggle, sacrifice, and achievement – we must remain ever vigilant in safeguarding our most basic and important right.” The Department of Justice did just that in rejecting South Carolina’s suppressive voter ID law. Mississippi’s minority voters tried and failed to reject their state’s latest voter suppression scheme. It once again falls to the Justice Department or the courts to do the right thing and reject Mississippi’s discriminatory government-issued photo ID law.
See the full analysis below.
BARBARA R. ARNWINE, Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law since 1989, is internationally renowned for contributions on critical justice issues including the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1991. For more information, please visit www.lawyerscommittee.org