By Shelia Byrd
Associated Press Writer
JACKSON, MS (AP) - Mississippi NAACP leaders say they fear some people could be discouraged from casting ballots after Gov. Haley Barbour questioned whether thousands of new voters were legally registered.
Barbour, a former Republican National Committee who helped engineer the GOP's takeover of the U.S. House and Senate in 1994, recently told a British publication that "not all" new voters in the state are legal because they must show identification either when they register or at the polls.
"I suspect some of those people won't be able to do that," Barbour told The Financial Times.
He has since declined repeated requests for comment on the issue.
Nearly 190,000 new voters have registered in Mississippi, a state where memories of Jim Crow are still etched in the minds of an older generation who bristle at the suggestion of showing ID at the polls.
The secretary of state's office says it has not been able to verify the identities of 34,066 new voters. Some 17,000 of them mailed their registrations without sufficient identification. Those voters will be required to show photo ID, a utility bill, a paycheck or a bank statement at the polls under the state's interpretation of the federal Help America Vote Act, passed after the controversial 2000 presidential election.
The state does not have a law requiring voters to show ID. If they can't show ID, they can cast an affidavit, or provisional, ballot, which will be counted if their identities can be verified later.
The other 17,000 or so were people who registered in person, but their names could not be found in a Department of Public Safety database. They will not be required to show ID at the polls.
Barbour's comments create "an atmosphere where individuals may feel as if they may commit some crime or do something wrong by turning out at the polls," said Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson. "It puts a question of doubt in a voter's mind."
Barbour's spokesman, Pete Smith, said no one should feel suppressed if they are properly registered.
"The governor hopes every legally registered voter actually goes to vote," Smith said.
Advocacy groups across the nation are eying any perceived cases of voter suppression, particularly in states with hotly contested races, said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in Washington.
"Mississippi falls in that category with the emergence of newly registered voters and the likelihood that more African-Americans and Latinos will go to the polls this year," Henderson said.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is expected to draw a record minority turnout Nov. 4, but Republican John McCain is favored to win Mississippi, which hasn't voted for a Democrat in seven presidential elections. There is, however, a heated U.S. Senate race for the seat formerly held by Republican Trent Lott.
Henderson said flyers have been circulating in Virginia telling Republicans to vote on Tuesday and Democrats on Wednesday. In Pennsylvania, flyers warned voters they'll be arrested if they have outstanding fines and traffic tickets, he said.
Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Brad White said likening Barbour's comments to voter suppression "is a stretch" because the ID requirement is federal law.
Veteran civil rights activist Hollis Watkins disagreed. Watkins, 67, was the first Mississippi student to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, whose members were active in black voter registration in the state during the height of the civil rights movement.
Watkins recalled the literacy tests blacks were once forced to pass for the privilege to vote. One question, which required people to write a section of the state constitution and interpret it, was used for intimidation and voter suppression, he said.
"We found that there were registrars that had less than an eighth-grade education who were telling high school teachers, college professors and even a couple of law students that they flunked because they didn't interpret the constitution correctly," Watkins said.
Watkins said many blacks during that period who "didn't have the best education or a knowledge of politics" chose not to even attempt to register to vote and he believes Barbour's comments could have the same effect.