Mississippi’s voter ID law may be open to legal challenge after the state Supreme Court ruled May 14 to nullify the state’s ballot initiative process that allowed voters to amend the state constitution.
The 6-3 ruling came as part of the court’s decision to overturn the state’s voter-backed medical marijuana program due to a flaw in the state’s Constitution.
The flaw is a wording error from when the state had five U.S. Congressional districts instead of its current four. The Mississippi Constitution requires a certain percentage of signatures petitioning for an initiative to be on the ballot come from all five congressional districts. The error means the ballot initiative process “cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five congressional districts,” according to the majority opinion authored by Justice Josiah Coleman.
The ruling represents a rigid, textual reading of the state’s constitution, according to Matt Steffey, a constitutional law professor at the Mississippi College School of Law.
It also set the state up for a potential challenge to its voter ID and eminent domain laws, both of which were passed by voters as part of the ballot initiative process. Mississippi voters approved a voter ID law in 2011, with 62% of voters that cycle voting in favor of it.
In a May 27 interview with SuperTalk, the conservative radio station, Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson called for Gov. Tate Reeves to order a special session of the legislature to prevent any possible challenges to the state’s voter ID and eminent domain laws. Watson previously said his office will not challenge the Mississippi Supreme Court’s ruling.
Most of the voter ID law is codified into state law, and not just the Constitution, Watson said, protecting it from legal challenge. However, the portion of it requiring Mississippi to provide free identification cards to voters has not been codified by the legislature and could be made null if challenged in a court of law.
“If you want to make sure that the challenge is moot, that there’s no point even challenging it, you would add that to the statute,” Watson said. “You could do it next year, but you’re allowing time for it to be challenged.”
The state’s eminent domain law, which prevents the government from taking private property and giving it to other nongovernment entities, is also not state law and exists solely in the state constitution, according to Watson.
Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler, the plaintiff in the suit that ultimately nullified the state’s voter initiative process, was at a funeral and could not be reached for comment, according to her legal counsel. Butler is a Republican.
The provision requiring the state to give free identification cards to all voters may play a large role in what has prevented the law from being challenged in the courts previously. In other states, such as North Carolina, the inability to obtain an ID was seen as a way to disenfranchise minority voters, who would be less likely to possess a state ID. One court ruled the original law targeted Black voters with “almost surgical precision.”
North Carolina later passed a revised voter ID law that was upheld in federal appeals court this past December.
Steffey, the legal expert, said while he expects people to challenge the voter ID law, he does not think the Mississippi Supreme Court would even hear the case. Instead, he said he thinks the court would rule the lawsuit would be filed too long after the initiative process, avoiding having to rule on a law popular with the state’s elected officials.
“I understand that means we are going to limp forward with two pieces of the constitution that are the result of what the court has told us is a void process,” Steffey said. “If five members of the court say a lawsuit to voter ID is too late, then it is too late.”
Some Republicans think there is not a viable challenge to the law. In an earlier interview with SuperTalk, Mississippi Speaker of the House Philip Gunn said any challenge would be moot because the law has been codified.
“It’s already the law in Mississippi,” Gunn said.
Lee O. Sanderlin is an investigative and political reporter covering the state of Mississippi. Got a story tip? Reach him at 601-559-3857, by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @LeeOSanderlin.