Voter photo ID opponents in Mississippi hold off on court fight

Thu Nov 10, 2011 5:35pm EST

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(Reuters) - Critics of a new Mississippi law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls said they will monitor how the amendment to the state constitution is implemented before deciding whether to challenge it in court.

Mississippi voters this week passed the voter ID ballot initiative by a wide margin, making that state the eighth in the nation to adopt a strict voter photo ID requirement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Lawmakers in Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin enacted similar laws earlier this year.

The Mississippi amendment requires residents to present a government-issued photo ID before they can vote, and says those who lack proper identification can obtain one from the state for free.

Republican state Senator Joey Fillingane sponsored the ballot initiative after legislators debated the issue for years without winning approval in both chambers. He said the photo ID requirement would help clean up the state's election process.

"This certainly won't cure all of our issues in the state of Mississippi, but I think it's a very important first step," Fillingane said.

Opponents of the measure liken it to a modern-day form of the poll taxes that were once used to keep African-Americans from voting in Southern states. They say low-income, minority and elderly voters will be disproportionately affected.

Many people in those groups cannot afford to pay for the required documents needed to get a government-issued photo ID, the opponents say.

"Voter ID is a vote-suppression method," said Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"There is no voter fraud in the state of Mississippi that voter ID would have prevented," he added. "The more barriers you place in front of individuals from exercising their right to vote, the more likely individuals will not exercise their right to vote."

The voter ID issue got some attention ahead of Tuesday's election, but nothing compared to the national debate surrounding a failed anti-abortion initiative that asked voters whether the state constitution should define a fertilized egg as a legal person.

Experts said people have become accustomed to showing ID for a variety of daily activities and didn't see why voting should be any different.

"There was a kind of intuitive reaction to this," said Cy Rosenblatt, a political science lecturer at the University of Mississippi and a former state senator.

"If we have to prove who we say we are when we get on an airplane and if we have to prove who we are to cash a check, why not prove who we are when we go vote?"

But concerns remain among opponents. Officials with the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi said they were taking a wait-and-see approach toward possible legal challenges.

"We are weighing all our options as to how we want to proceed next," Johnson said.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said the measure would take effect 30 days after he certifies the voting results, and then legislation would be needed to allot funds to implement it.

The election results "gave clear direction of what the will and intent of the people of Mississippi are," Hosemann said. "Now we need to implement this in a fair and impartial manner."

(Additional reporting by Verna Gates in Jackson, Mississippi; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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