By Amy Whitehead | LSU Student
Voters across Louisiana will head to the polls on October 19 for open primary elections. To the east, Mississippi will hold elections soon after on November 5. But other than sharing one of the highest voter registration rates in the nation – 84 percent of eligible voters, say election officials – the ease of voting differs vastly in the two states.
Mississippi and Louisiana were two of nine states previously required by the U.S. Department of Justice to seek federal approval, or preclearance, prior to enacting any voting law changes. When the Supreme Court struck down section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on June 25 of this year, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann announced he would begin implementation of the state's pending voter identification law immediately.
Louisiana has had a voter ID law in effect since 1997. Louisiana Secretary of State Office spokeswoman, Meg Casper, said her office has no plans to make any changes to existing voting laws.
"Things work very well," she said.
In the November 2011 state general election, 62 percent of Mississippi voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring residents to show a government-issued photo identification card in order to vote. Opponents of voter ID say such laws will prevent eligible voters lacking the required ID from voting.
The Mississippi Legislature passed voter identification provisions in 2012. Acceptable forms of ID will include a Mississippi driver's license, a U.S. passport, or a state license to carry a pistol or a revolver. Voters who have a religious objection to being photographed will be exempt from the photo ID requirement.
Mississippi voters without the necessary ID will be able to get a free Mississippi Voter Identification Card at their county registrar's office. Current plans are for the new requirements to be in place in time for the 2014 elections. Proponents of voter ID say the provisions help prevent voter fraud.
But, according to the Louisiana Secretary of State Office spokeswoman, Meg Casper, voter fraud in not a problem in Louisiana, citing no cases in years. Casper attributes the improved conditions of Louisiana elections to the strength of state voting safeguards. "Louisiana has some of the strongest and best voting regulations in the U.S."
In Mississippi, two people were convicted of voter fraud in 2011. Both cases involved absentee ballots. A Tunica woman was convicted on 10-counts of casting fraudulent absentee ballots during the 2007 presidential primary. A Canton man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for voting by absentee ballot in two 2009 municipal elections despite a forgery conviction in 2005. Forgery is one of 22 disenfranchising crimes in Mississippi. Others include armed robbery, statutory rape and timber larceny.
In Louisiana, felons can have their voting rights restored once they have completed their sentences and all parole or probation requirements. In Mississippi, disenfranchised felons can only have their rights restored if they receive a pardon from the governor or if two-thirds of both houses of the state legislature vote to restore those rights to that individual.
Louisiana's voter ID law is not as strict as the one proposed in Mississippi. "Ours is different from other laws in that you can vote even if for some reason you don't have your ID on you that day," Casper said.
In Louisiana, registered voters who show up at the polls without a photo ID are allowed to vote but must sign an affidavit stating they are who they claim to be. The Secretary of State conducts post-election audits on those affidavits.
Showing an approved photo id at the polls is "the quickest, fastest way to get through the line," said Casper. "But just because you don't have an ID doesn't mean you can't vote."
Under the new voter ID law, Mississippi voters who don't present an accepted form of ID at the polls will be able to vote by affidavit ballot. The person must return with a valid photo ID within five days or their vote will not be counted.
Louisiana residents can register to vote in person, by mail, or online. Photo ID is not required to register to vote. "If you register online or by mail, you have to vote in person the first time you vote," said Casper. "If you register in person, you can vote absentee."
Priscilla Arceneaux, assistant to the East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar of Voters, Elaine Lamb, said eligible voters can register in person at a registrar's office, the office of motor vehicles and public assistance agencies.
"They have made it so easy for people," Arceneaux said. "They just have all kinds of avenues for people to get registered to vote."
Arceneaux said most people who register in person come in with some type of identification. She said her office works to make the process easy for the public. "Nobody is ever turned away. We don't reject registrations out of hand. We give people every chance."
Louisiana voters do not have to provide a reason to vote absentee. Voters may request an absentee ballot in person or by mail. All first time voters are required to vote in person.
Mississippi voters must meet one of 12 requirements in order to cast an absentee ballot. Members of the Armed Forces, as well as their spouses and dependents, are eligible to vote by absentee ballot. Voters who have to work during polling hours and those who will be away from their voting precinct on Election Day may also vote absentee.
In addition to voter ID requirements, provisions are in place in Louisiana to guard against absentee ballot fraud. Casper said identifying questions on the absentee ballot help match voters to their voter registration form for verification. Signatures on the absentee ballot also are compared to those on the voter registration form.
Casper said Louisiana was one of the first states to offer online voter registration and also is one of the first states to offer a mobile app for voters. Her office won the top award at the 2013 annual summer conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) for its Geaux Vote app and website.
NASS President Ross Miller of Nevada praised Louisiana's submission in a release announcing the award. "'GeauxVote Mobile' exemplifies best practices in state government nationwide by reducing voter apathy and increasing participation," said Miller.