Delbert Hosemann during speaks during Gov. Tate Reeves’ inauguration ceremony inside the House chamber at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss. Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann told reporters on Thursday he would likely kill a bill that would give the secretary of state authority to purge voter rolls if officials suspect voters are non-U.S. citizens.

The bill, pushed by Secretary of State Michael Watson and passed by two Senate committees earlier this week, would allow state election officials to use state and federal databases — including from the FBI and ICE — to determine whether registered voters could be flagged as possible non-citizens. If individuals under scrutiny do not prove their citizenship within 30 days, they would be removed from voter rolls.

Watson told senators on Tuesday that he has “reason to believe there were actual registered voters who were here illegally” but could not offer specifics when pressed in committee meetings. But Hosemann, who previously served three terms as secretary of state, said in a press conference on Thursday that the problem Watson suggested is “virtually nonexistent.”

“It was more of a mental issue than a realistic issue,” Hosemann said. “The last thing someone who is here illegally wants to do is anything where they’re around policemen or precincts or other things. They avoid those things like the plague, and you can understand why… Quite frankly, it’s remote those people are here legally and would try to vote and commit a crime and get kicked out of the country.”

Hosemann continued: “I don’t know that will evolve eventually to being made into law in Mississippi.”

As secretary of state, Hosemann led the 2011 push to adopt and later implement a voter ID law in Mississippi. Proponents of voter ID argued requiring voters to present government-issued ID at the ballot box would curb election fraud and even though voter impersonation is exceedingly rare.

During his 2019 campaign for secretary of state, Watson highlighted what he called forms of “illegal” voting. During the campaign he proposed that the state conduct background checks on Mississippians when they register to vote “to confirm legal citizenship,” his campaign website said.

Watson’s bill does not specify what would constitute evidence that a particular voter might not be a citizen, and it does not clarify how election officials would have to alert suspected non-citizens that they needed to prove citizenship within 30 days.

The bill also states that driver’s licenses would not qualify as proof of citizenship, meaning voters would have to provide a birth certificate, passport or naturalization document to prove citizenship.

Opponents of the bill on Tuesday said the costs and timing of obtaining those two forms of identification could prevent U.S. citizens from meeting the 30-day threshold to prove citizenship.

Watson pushes bill that requires voters to prove citizenship or be purged from rolls

“This is the worst election bill I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, also a former assistant secretary of state, said on Tuesday. “It’s radical, it’s dangerous, and it’s un-American. Thousands and thousands of Mississippians who may not turn up in some database will lose their ability and right to vote over this bill.”

Proof of citizenship laws passed in other states have been swiftly challenged in federal court, and the courts have struck down several of them. States such as Florida and Texas have faced federal scrutiny over similar laws. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee have passed similar laws.

Hosemann told reporters on Thursday that he “is not in favor of creating more litigation.”

“I am not putting a lot in my budget for creating federal lawsuits,” Hosemann said. “I’ve already got corrections, (Department of Human Services), and mental health already that we’re paying either the attorney general’s office or some outside counsel. We’d like to lower the amount of litigation.”

Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.