Mississippi's Secretary of State moves to enforce voter ID law

July 10, 2013
Martha Bergmark

With unseemly haste following the Supreme Court's recent nullification of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, Mississippi's Secretary of State has moved to enforce a new voter identification law that will suppress the vote of African Americans in my home state.

Within hours of the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder, in an email captioned, "This chapter is closed," Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann trumpeted the court's holding that Mississippi need no longer seek U. S. Justice Department pre-clearance for changes to its voting laws. "Mississippi citizens have earned the right to determine our voting processes," he said, even as he announced that the process for implementing the voter ID law "begins today."

Just a few days later, I received Hosemann's letter informing me that he intends to finalize his draft regulations to implement the law on August 1.

Mississippi is not alone. Mississippi, Texas, Alabama and other mostly Deep South jurisdictions were -- until the ruling in Shelby -- covered by the Voting Rights Act's buffer against voter suppression schemes that, back in the day, included poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, these jurisdictions are in a mad rush to implement current versions of voter suppression -- strong testament to the folly of the Supreme Court's decision. With a weakened Voting Rights Act, we will see immediate effects that not only make it more difficult for eligible voters to cast a ballot, but turn back the clock on the gains in racial and economic justice we've made in the past 50 years.

The pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act was the best tool we had to fight voting laws that discriminate against low-income people and communities of color. Since 2006, the Voting Rights Act has been used to block 31 voting changes that the Department of Justice found discriminatory, not to mention the hundreds of laws that the Voting Rights Act deterred by its mere presence.

The ramifications of the Supreme Court's decision extend far beyond the voting booth. In the Court's opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts points to African American voter registration rates and turnout, and declares that progress on those fronts indicates a need to reevaluate portions of the Voting Rights Act. But the franchise isn't just about a few statistics -- it's about political power and has deep economic and social implications. The right to vote is about true equality. And we are far from it.

Mississippi ranks the lowest in the country in nearly all of the indicators for health, economic security, education and well-being. Our elected officials largely determine the policies that combat these problems and our representatives have let us down in some of the most pressing political issues we are facing today. Last month, the state legislature voted against expanding Medicaid, leaving some 300,000 people without access to health care. Mississippi renewed a payday lending law last year that increased the reliance of low-income borrowers to predatory loans, cementing its ranking as the state with the highest concentration of payday lenders per capita.

These measures hurt all of Mississippi, but they especially devastate low-income communities of color. We need to find a way for our legislators to be more accountable to everyday Mississippians, but the ruling in Shelby makes our elected officials even less responsive to their constituents by allowing laws that could take away the right of eligible citizens to vote. Unless we ensure a fair and equitable way to vote for our representatives, there will be a large segment of the population whose political voices are even more muted. This isn't the time to further divide Mississippi's already segregated and struggling population.

Providing an ID to vote may seem innocuous, but more than one out of every ten eligible voters do not have government-issued ID. A report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, details how difficult it is to obtain a government-issued photo ID, especially for communities of color, low-income people, students and the elderly. To secure government-issued photo ID in Mississippi, many voters will need a birth certificate. Yet, in a maddening Catch-22, the state requires a government-issued photo ID to obtain a certified copy of a birth certificate.

While the Court left the Voting Rights Act severely weakened, there is still some hope. The burden now shifts to civil rights groups to turn to other sections of the Voting Rights Act, such as Sections 2 and 3, and sue when voting laws discriminate against minorities. It will take time and resources, but the civil rights movement is at a crossroads and we can't afford to erase decades of momentum towards racial and economic equality.

Many are now urging Congress to devise an updated formula to determine which areas need federal approval for voting changes. But it isn't just on Congress to act; it is our burden, too. Fifty years after Selma and the March on Washington, we need to fully recognize that the power to vote is not only the power to elect our officials, but also the power to fight racial discrimination and economic inequality.