Mississippi Ballot Issue Could Stir Democratic Base

Posted September 16, 2008 at 6:26pm

By late Tuesday afternoon, the Mississippi Supreme Court had yet to issue a ruling on the ballot design quandary that is the latest legal dispute to divide Democrats and Republicans in the Magnolia State’s special Senate election this year.

But with mounting pressure to get a final ballot in the hands of statewide election officials ahead of Nov. 4, a decision is expected to be handed down within a matter of days — possibly as soon as today.

In the meantime, Congressional Democrats are now asking the Department of Justice to get involved in the dispute, and some Mississippi political insiders are wondering if the very inside-baseball election law issue could take on a larger political significance come November.

The clash began last week when Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and Gov. Haley Barbour (R) presented a November ballot that placed the special election contest between appointed Sen. Roger Wicker (R) and former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) near the bottom of the ballot, below all general election races.

That ballot was immediately challenged by a Democratic state election commissioner because she said the ballot would cause confusion among voters and result in a significant undervote.

Her objection was upheld on Friday by a Mississippi circuit court judge, who ordered state election officials to revise the ballot so that the special election appears at the top of the ballot along with all other candidates seeking federal office.

Barbour and Hosemann quickly appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court, and both sides are claiming state election law to be on their side.

Politically, Democrats have been particularly upset with the idea of placing the high-profile Senate race near the bottom of the ballot because they believe a drop-off in votes would most likely affect Democratic-leaning voters, especially low-income and minority voters. But, while claiming that recent ballot placement precedent is on their side, Republicans also argue that the Democratic fears of a substantial drop-off are not rational, especially now that the state is using new computer voting technologies.

Richard Forgette, chairman of the University of Mississippi’s political science department, wouldn’t go so far as to say voter drop-off has been eliminated in Mississippi.

“The drop-off problem really is one that varies substantially from one state to the next and has to do with the nature of the electorate and the composition of the ballot,” Forgette said.

In California, where the ballot is usually extremely long, the drop-off vote can make up a substantial share of the electorate. But in a state like Mississippi, where the ballot typically isn’t very long, the drop-off problem isn’t quite as pronounced, he said.

Also, “technology matters. And we have the voting machines, and with electronic voting machines drop-off is less of a problem because the voter will receive prompts if they did not vote in a race,” Forgette added.

But while drop-off votes have been significantly reduced, the problem still does exist, and “in a close election like this one, everything counts,” he said. And since the Senate race will be one of the most anticipated elections in Mississippi this fall, “I haven’t heard a compelling explanation as to why it would appear at the bottom of the ballot.”

In his call to have the Department of Justice investigate the ballot-placement issue on Tuesday, Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) called Barbour and Hosemann’s actions a “blatant violation” of the Voting Rights Act.

Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson (D) released a statement with Conyers calling the ballot design “an all too familiar reminder of the dirty tricks and voter suppression tactics of long ago. What we have here is a clear intent to confuse voters.”

Republicans say they are simply following precedent, one that was in use even under Musgrove, and that Democrats are currently more interested in making political hay of the ballot-placement issue then they are worried about disenfranchising voters.

“The Musgrove campaign has been very good at using [the ballot dispute] to generate press,” said Brian Perry, a partner with the Republican consulting firm Capstone Public Affairs. “They’ve been sending out e-mails trying to generate campaign contributions saying Republicans are trying to cheat.”

But Perry said, “I think when it comes down to it, … people aren’t going to decide who they vote for based on where the ballot dispute ends up.”

Perry also argued that if Republicans were really trying to game the system they would not choose to place the special election at the bottom of the ballot because that moves Wicker’s name away from the GOP presidential ticket led by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

But it also moves Musgrove’s name away from a Democratic ticket that includes Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the first black major- party presidential nominee. Mississippi has an overall black population of 36 percent, and turnout among African-Americans is expected to be high this fall.

One Mississippi consultant suggested Tuesday that losing the ballot dispute in the state Supreme Court could actually benefit Musgrove and state Democrats because then they could whip up support among their base by claiming they were treated unfairly by the court. The consultant suggested that if that happened, Musgrove could start a “bottom to top” campaign slogan to get voters to focus on the Musgrove/Wicker race at the bottom of the ballot and at the same time remind voters of the court’s decision.

The current ballot dispute is not the first time this year the state’s highest court will rule on an issue affecting the Senate election. In February, the state Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision and sided with the GOP over the timing of the special election.

State Attorney General Jim Hood used Barbour’s own argument in the February case against him in his friend-of-the-court briefing filed Monday.

“Earlier this year, the courts and the citizens of Mississippi were led by the Governor to believe that the special Senatorial election must be held on the general election day this November because it would increase the number of voters casting ballots in this important election,” Hood wrote in his amicus brief. “Given the concern for voter participation expressed by the Governor, what then can be made of his attempt to place this extremely important election at the bottom of the ballot?”