Voter Suppression Hits Mississippi

Against the Current, No. 163, March/April 2013

Bill Chandler

ON TUESDAY, JANUARY 29th, Missis­sippi’s Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman, a professed “States Rights” proponent, submitted Mississippi’s proposed voter ID rules to the United States Justice Department for preclearance. This follows the passage of a state constitutional amendment during the 2011 Mississippi state election.

Hoseman’s submission is part of the state’s process of seeking federal approval of the law that would require every voter to show a driver’s license or other photo ID every time they vote. Nineteen other states have enacted voter suppression laws.

Earlier in 2011, the legislative redistricting committees proposed newly drawn legislative district lines to conform with the population shifts recorded during the 2010 U.S. census. A fairly honest Republican- authored Senate version was torpedoed by Tea Party Governor Phil Bryant, who had a new proposal full of “packing” Black voters into legislative districts, robbing white rural Democrats of Black voters who have pressured their white legislators into supporting more progressive legislative proposals.

The 2011 election resulted in Democrats losing control of both chambers of the legislature, and only one white Democrat serving in a statewide political office — Attorney General Jim Hood, who in fact is the only statewide elected official who is a Democrat anywhere in the South.

Since white people began fleeing the Democratic Party over racial issues nearly 50 years ago, the electoral picture has shifted so that being a white voter in Mississippi almost equates with being Republican. During the 2011 election 90% of white voters supported Gov. Phil Bryant, the Republican incumbent, while 97% of Black voters supported Johnny Dupree, the African American Democrat.

Initiative #27, the voter ID ballot proposal, was supported by whites 80% to 20%. Blacks rejected it 83% to 17%. Voter identification is clearly a white idea. One could assume from that data that Black and white voters agree on one thing: voter ID is harmful to Black voters.

There are no figures available about how Mississippi Latinos voted in 2011, or in 2012, although 4% of all those who voted in 2008 were Latinos. Exit polls at the time reported that among Latino voters in Mississippi who responded, 87% voted for President Obama. Whites seem to have a reason to want to drive Latinos out of Mississippi.

Mobilizing Against Suppression

Many white political office holders are worried about the growing Latino population in Mississippi, likewise throughout the Deep South. Until recently some 37% to 40% of the state’s population was African American. Some 60% to 63% are white.

Twenty years ago the Latino population was around 10,000, almost invisible among the states’ nearly 3,000,000 residents. Then came the North American Free Trade Agreement, and by 2000 the Latino population had grown by 400%.

In 2010 the U.S. Census recorded a Latino growth of more than 105%, but this “hard to count” population is estimated by Mississippi grassroots groups at nearly 200,000.

Throughout the Deep South, demographics are changing. This is what has driven states like South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama to enact laws to make life miserable for immigrants. In Mississippi, adding the 10% progressive white voters with the growing Latino vote to the African-American voters could well bring a significant shift of power from the white supremacist oligarchies to a more progressive electorate of Black, Brown and white voters.

The 2012 election mobilization brought limited resources for voter registration campaigns in Mississippi. The Mississippi NAACP and many others in a broad coalition registered some 25,000 new voters.

During that effort, Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA) organizers and volunteers registered 1,413 new voters in a systematic door-to door effort focusing in counties where there are significant immigrant communities, reaching naturalized citizens and voting age youth born in the United States — those so-called “anchor babies the Right howls about.

Kathy Sykes, an African-American MIRA organizer who organized the door-to-door drive related in her report in MIRA’s quarterly newsletter, “This is significant because these new voters could make or break elections for candidates who are supporters of our cause thereby moving forward to a Mississippi where basic human rights are enforced.

“Of course everything was not free from challenges. This was particularly true in Scott County (with a large population of Latino workers). One thing that caught my attention when I entered the office of Circuit Clerk Joe Rigby (in Mississippi Circuit Clerks are responsible for voter rolls) was that he had posted a (large) flyer from Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman that said ‘Need ID?’ I thought this was very misleading because I knew that the state’s voter ID law had not been pre-cleared under Section V of the federal Voting Rights Act and I sounded the alarm. The poster showed up in many other locations.”

She went on to write that Hoseman and Bryant “were intent on misleading and suppressing the vote by suggesting that voters show their ID when legally there is currently no photo ID requirement in Mississippi. They went further by placing a poster implying that a photo ID was needed to vote in many public locations around the state. I was very concerned for the newly registered voters. They might think that if they did not have a photo ID, then they could not vote in the very important Presidential election.

“After the deadline to register voters (October 6th) MIRA made calls to those newly registered in Scott County to remind them to vote and to make sure they had received their voter registration cards from their Circuit Clerks office. We were told by all we contacted that they had not received cards at all. This was just a few days before the election. The cards are important because they inform the new voters and voters who have changed their address about where their voting precinct is located.

“We called the voters a second time to tell them where their polling place was located using the Google election website to look up their polling places for them. The situation was most dire in Scott County where none of the newly registered, some 320+ had received their voter registration cards. Furthermore, many of the 893 people we registered in Hinds County (where Jackson, the state capital is located) did not receive their voter registration cards either.”

A reporter for the Jackson Free Press, a liberal weekly magazine, discovered and photographed two boxes full of about 1,500 unrecorded voter registration forms sitting on the floor of the Hinds County Circuit Clerks office days after the election. They had been delivered by the NAACP before October 6th, in plenty of time to enter them into the voter rolls.

On November 6th, election day, Hose­man came to the rescue for his states’ rights buddies as Kathy relates: “Many names were left off the voter rolls and not entered into the Statewide Elections Management System (SEMS), where election workers can look up names of voters who are not on their precinct lists.” Mysteriously, “that the SEMS system had ‘crashed’ on election day was very suspicious. SEMS is the responsibility of the Secretary of State. All of this was the focus of an article in the Jackson Free Press, and on local TV stations. This is another form of voter suppression.”

MIRA’s Work

Since MIRA was founded in 2000 as an organization of African Americans, Latinos and progressive whites, it has worked to protect and expand the rights of all immigrants in Mississippi. MIRA’s leadership is multiethnic and includes union, religious, civil rights and community activists.

Actively advocating and mass-lobbying state leaders, MIRA has led the successful effort over the past 12 years to prevent Arizona/Alabama style anti-immigrant laws from being enacted. The large Mississippi Black Legislative Caucus, in which MIRA President Rep. Jim Evans is a leader, has in the House and Senate chambers, led the fight against over 250 anti-immigrant bills that have been introduced over the years.

All of these were killed, except one passed in 2008 to satisfy Mississippi xenophobes. It had language mandating e-verify and making unauthorized workers felons. But in their bigoted glee when Gov. Bryant signed it into law, they failed to see that the way the bill was written, it was utterly unenforceable.

The 2013 Mississippi legislative session has brought over a score of proposals “that the intent . . . is to make attrition through enforcement the public policy of all state agencies and local governments in Mississippi” — in other words, to force immigrants “to self deport,” as Willard Mitt Romney declared in his failed campaign. The bills call for criminal penalties for e-verify violations by both workers and employers, denial of any state benefits, and even mandating that law enforcement immediately photograph “certain persons” caught without a driver’s license and insurance.

However, immigrants from Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, along with Asian, African — from Sierra Leon, Senegal and Mauritania — and even Europeans, and their allies from around the state,  joined in their “2013 Civic Engagement Day” at the state Capitol with African American leaders from their communities and legislators to once again call for the defeat of those proposals.

The group broke into six delegations to target some 50 lawmakers to meet, and succeeded in meeting with 41 that day. As the session ends on April 5th, there is more mobilizing to do until these bills are stamped out once again.

March/April 2013, ATC 163