February 20, 1998

Voter Law Stirs Bad Memories in Mississippi

New York Times A12

JACKSON, Miss. -- After a debate that stirred memories of literacy tests and the poll tax, Mississippi's Legislature Thursday became the last in the nation to accept a federal mandate that requires states to allow citizens to register to vote at motor vehicle offices and social services centers.

But Thursday's approval by the House of Representatives, which followed the state Senate's earlier passage of the "motor voter" bill, set up an ugly confrontation with the state's Republican governor, Kirk Fordice, who vowed to veto the measure after failing to add restrictions to it.

The passionate speeches on both sides of the issue illustrated the mistrust that exists in places like Mississippi more than 30 years after the Voting Rights Act opened the political process to all citizens, regardless of race. For many, the echoes from the state's discriminatory past remain loud enough to drown out any arguments for imposing even minor restrictions on ballot access.

In one floor speech Thursday, Rep. Frances Fredericks, D-Gulfport, a black, said little about the actual merits of the voter identification proposal, which Fordice characterizes as a "ballot integrity" measure. But she spoke at length about the humiliating and intimidating experience of taking a literacy test while registering to vote in 1967.

"This lady can tell you that all is not fair at the voting polls," Ms. Fredericks said. "And we're going to talk about integrity? Maybe we need to try to understand what integrity really is. Because in my way of thinking, it's making sure that every citizen of this state has the right to vote."

Fordice said Thursday that he would veto any bill that did not include a provision requiring voters to show identification at the polls. But the House Thursday easily defeated an amendment that would have attached Fordice's identification requirement to the voter registration bill. While the House passed the motor voter bill by a veto-proof margin of 87-33, the measure did not win a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Fordice characterizes the voter identification measure as an anti-fraud device, but his opponents view it a resurrection of Mississippi's past practice of placing barriers between black residents and the voting booth.

Another black, Rep. Edward Blackmon Jr., D-Canton, called the proposal "an instrument of mischief." And Rep. Stephen Holland, D-Tupelo, who is white, said the state should have learned from its history that "we cannot continue to defy the federal government."

But supporters of the voter identification measure said voter fraud was rampant in Mississippi and they mocked those who asserted that the proposal would place an onerous burden on voting.

"Some people might have to reach all the way in that back pocket and pull out that identification," said Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune.

Fordice said in an interview that it was "absurd" to compare the voter identification requirement to literacy tests, which once required black citizens to demonstrate knowledge of the Constitution and all manner of arcana in order to vote.

"That is an incredible stretch to hearken back to days of whatever went on, poll taxes and all," Fordice said. "There's nothing restrictive and intimidating about it."

Since 1995, when states began to carry out the provisions of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, known as the motor voter law, Mississippi has operated an unwieldy dual system of voter registration.

In essence, voters have had to register separately for federal elections and for state and local elections. Citizens who registered with the state, usually at a county courthouse, have been eligible to vote in elections of all kinds.

But those who register when applying for a drivers license or welfare benefits, a system made possible by the motor voter law, have been eligible to vote only in federal elections, like those for president and members of Congress. In order to vote in state and local elections, those citizens have also had to register with their counties.

The system has created bookkeeping headaches for election officials and confusion for voters who sometimes show up at the polls unaware that they are not registered to vote in a particular election.

Since Congress passed the motor voter bill, 43 states have enacted legislation bringing their voter registration practices into compliance with the new federal requirements. Six more states were exempt from the law because they allow voters to register on election day or do not require registration at all.

Only Mississippi refused to act, largely because of Fordice.

In several speeches and in Thursday's interview, the governor has made it clear that he opposes the motor voter legislation on a number of grounds.

He called it "the mother of all unfunded mandates," meaning that Congress had imposed an expense on the states without paying for it. He unabashedly cast it as a states' rights issue, calling the measure "an unwarranted federal intrusion into our state's election laws."

"We cannot continue to bend to the will of the federal government in every instance, particularly when it's totally against the Constitution," Fordice said Thursday.

Fordice also blamed the law for encouraging fraudulent voting, some of it by illegal aliens, and said it led to Democratic victories in two 1996 races -- Sen. Mary Landrieu's defeat of Woody Jenkins in Louisiana and Rep. Loretta Sanchez's victory over Robert Dornan in California. Congressional investigations in both cases have failed to show that fraudulent voting determined either outcome.

Some of Fordice's comments have inspired charges that he has injected race into the debate. Last summer, he said that the law was misnamed as "motor voter" and should instead be called "welfare voter."

The Justice Department took note of that remark in ruling last September that the state's dual registration system "virtually insures that it will have a discriminatory effect on black citizens."

The department said that black Mississippians were more likely than whites to register to vote at public assistance offices, and that denying them the right to register there for state and local elections was therefore discriminatory. For that reason, wrote Isabelle Katz Pinzler, an acting assistant attorney general, the system violates the Voting Rights Act.

"The reasons offered by some state officials for opposing such measures appear to have been insubstantial, and in some cases have been couched in racially charged terms," Ms. Pinzler wrote, referring specifically to Fordice.

The pressure from the Justice Department succeeded in forcing the Legislature to act, which then led Fordice to propose the voter identification measures. If the Justice Department forces him to sign a motor voter bill, he said Thursday, he would do so unhappily but only if it includes the anti-fraud protections. Some 15 states have similar measures, said Mary Brooks, senior lobbyist for the League of Women Voters.

For veterans of Mississippi's civil rights battles, Fordice's resistance seems all too familiar.

"We've been going through this ever since the civil rights movement, trying to get the right to vote, through every kind of roadblock," said Unita Blackwell, a longtime voting-rights advocate who is now the mayor of Mayersville, Miss. "It's sad that we keep running into these kinds of things. But this is where we are in the state of Mississippi."

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company