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Voter ID - Is it Needed?

by Keith Burton - GCN 9/5/09

As this article is being written, Mississippi Republicans are circulating petitions to get a voter ID measure on a statewide ballot. Their deadline is October 1.

Requiring an ID for people that vote has been seen by many as a perfectly acceptable idea to prevent voter fraud. In 2007, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman released polling data showing that 86% of Mississippians believe that voter fraud is an active problem in Mississippi elections. Further, 97% of Mississippi voters already possess a valid ID and 9 in 10 would support legislation requiring identification to vote as a means to combat election fraud. The data reflected the opinions of both republicans and democratic party voters. But legislative efforts to require voting ID continue to fail.

Perhaps the problem with voting in Mississippi is more fundamental.

In election after election across the country and in Mississippi news reports that show that a vast majority of citizens are not voting. Studies show that people are discouraged over the political process and feel their vote doesn't matter. But their vote does matter, as every person that runs for office knows. A person's vote is the most critical public service and right he has to determine the future of his community, state and nation. It is not a small matter. Yet, even knowing this, people don't vote.

Among the public's perceptions is that voting is fraught with fraud, especially because to vote, a person only has to show up at the polls. There is no requirement to prove you are a voter in Mississippi. There is no voter ID law. Stories of dead people voting, and individuals voting that don't live in the area where the poll is located are historically rampant. But there is more than these issues at stake in the voting process.

What is clear is that the most fundamental right of an American citizen, the right to vote, is broken in this state and in the country as a whole.

People often complain that they no longer feel they are connected to their elected leaders. That the same names and policies continue in government year after year with no change. And they would be largely correct. The election process often returns to office the very individuals that people complain about and the policies, both bad and good continue, regardless of political party.

Trying to affect a change in people's attitudes about voting is difficult. News media reports about appallingly low voter turnout have done little to encourage turnout at the polls. In recent municipal elections on the Coast, voter turnout in some elections among registered voters was less than 5 to 7 percent. But the reality is worse, the number of registered voters only represents a fraction of the population, because so many people don't register.

The most common reason not to register in Mississippi is that people know that the voter lists are used to select jurors for trials. While clearly serving on a jury is a needed act, the low pay and inconvenience is a particular hardship in a state where low pay and possible unemployment threaten every worker. As so few people register to vote, many people are notified repeatedly for jury duty, often several times a year. The list is too small.

What is needed is reform in the fundamental process. The efforts to require voter registration identification has been criticized as a way to disenfranchise voters by some Mississippi democratic party leaders. This misstates the real problem that has been ignored by both democrats and republicans elected officials.

What disenfranchises people from the election process is not whether people need to provide an ID to vote, but rather the state laws that use the voter lists to compile jurors, the most commonly cited reason most people fail to register to vote. Changing the law to draw jurors from Department of Motor Vehicle lists would be viable suggestion.

Other reforms in voter lists are also badly needed.

There needs to be a viable method of removing voters from voting rolls that have died, moved or otherwise not eligible to vote. In Mississippi, people convicted of certain felonies are not  permitted to vote. The voter lists in every community and county are filled with names of people that should not be there.

This is particularly true along the Coast following Katrina, where many people have moved and are no longer located where they once lived, or have moved away entirely. A recent review of voters in one ward in Biloxi indicated a high number of voters that no longer resided in the community, or in the neighborhoods where they were registered.  Such errors can result in skewed results in elections. What is needed is a required and scheduled method to purge voter rolls.

What many people don't know is that there is a disincentive for cities and counties to purge voter rolls. That is because many federal assistance programs use voter registration numbers to determine assistance funding for communities. Decreasing the number of voters on the voter lists could cut the amount of federal assistance money for a community, or even a state.

Requiring identification at the polls to vote is clearly a time that has come. Years ago, people didn't move much and communities were smaller. Poll workers often knew many of the people that voted at the polls, including who had died and who lived in the neighborhood where the poll was located. That is not the case anymore.

That gets back to why people don't vote. Everyone needs to feel that their vote matters and the voting rolls have an integrity that represents the importance of people's right to vote. At this time, that is not the case.

More Information:

Online Petition for Voter ID - msgop.org

Poll on Voter ID - .pdf file

States that Require Voter ID or Picture ID - ncsl.org

Democratic Party Response to Republicans Voter ID Petition - mississippidemocrats.org


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