NAACP asks feds to block Mississippi voter ID law

Because of Mississippi’s history of racial discrimination, the state is required to get federal approval for any changes in election laws and procedures. The NAACP is asking federal officials to block the state’s request for a new voter ID law saying it will hinder many minorities from voting. (file photo)

JACKSON – (AP) The Mississippi NAACP is asking federal officials to block what will likely become the state’s new voter ID law, contending it will violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act by diminishing the voting strength of minorities.

Because of Mississippi’s history of racial discrimination, the state is required to get federal approval for any changes in election laws or procedures.

Supporters of the voter ID law say it’s needed to protect the integrity of elections. Opponents say it could suppress turnout among poor, elderly or minority voters.

“The presumption is because of Mississippi’s history of discrimination against black citizens and denying black citizens the right to vote, any voting change could not be pre-cleared unless the state proves it does not discriminate,” said Carroll Rhodes of Hazlehurst, an attorney for the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “We feel certain the state cannot meet that burden of proof.”

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said he intends to sign House Bill 921, which would require voters to show a driver’s license, student ID, passport or other photo identification at the polls. He faces a May 18 deadline to act.

Approval for new Mississippi election laws is usually sought from the U.S. Justice Department, but Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann has said he might try to circumvent the agency and instead seek approval from a U.S. district court in Washington.

The Justice Department in recent months has blocked voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, which are also required to get election laws approved under the 1965 law. The department said the ID laws in those states would disproportionately hurt minority voters.

Hosemann said Mississippi’s voter ID law is closely patterned after Indiana’s law, which has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, Rhodes said the history of discrimination is far different in Mississippi, and Indiana is not required to seek federal approval for election laws.

In November, 62 percent of Mississippi voters approved a constitutional amendment for voter ID. In January, Attorney General Jim Hood submitted the amendment to the Justice Department. In March, the department told Hood it needed more information.

Legislators, meanwhile, were working on the bill to put the voter ID provisions into law. Lawmakers have argued for more than a decade about voter ID but have not passed a bill until this year, when Republicans gained control of both chambers.

The attorney general usually is the state official who submits election laws to the Justice Department, and Hood is the only Democrat in statewide office.

The bill awaiting Bryant’s signature would also authorize the governor, the secretary of state or the chairmen of the House or Senate elections committees to submit the voter ID law for federal approval. Those officials are Republicans.

Hood said in a statement he will submit the voter ID bill to the Justice Department as soon as Bryant signs it.

“As the state’s chief legal officer, the attorney general has always been the submitting authority on matters of pre-clearance to the Department of Justice,” Hood said. “We do not intend to stop that practice now.”

Hosemann last week questioned whether Mississippi could get fair treatment from the Justice Department after Stephanie Gyamfi, a civil rights analyst for the department posted on Facebook that Mississippi should consider changing its slogan to “disgusting and shameful.”

The chief of the Justice Department’s voting section, T. Christian Herren Jr., said Tuesday that the department reviewed Gyamfi’s remarks and found they were personal and not work-related. He said she made them after some University of Southern Mississippi students chanted “Where’s your green card?” to a Puerto Rican basketball player at a game in March. One of Gyamfi’s Facebook friends posted a comment about the chant, and she responded to that post.

Herren said Gyamfi doesn’t review Mississippi submissions.

“We further understand that the post bore no relationship to voting legislation in Mississippi or the Department of Justice’s review of such legislation,” Herren wrote in a letter to Hosemann, which was released to the media.

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