Voters prepare to cast their votes at Jackson Fire Station #22 during the midterm elections Tuesday, November 6, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Mississippi’s voter identification requirement could be at risk if the state Supreme Court strikes down the medical marijuana initiative approved by voters in November.

After all, the same process employed to put medical marijuana on the ballot was used in 2011 to enact a mandate that Mississippi voters must have a government-issued photo identification to vote.

Would it not make sense that if one was improperly on the ballot then so was the other?

Perhaps the Supreme Court could or would walk a tight rope and rule that it is too late to challenge the voter identification requirement since it has been in effect for a longer time.

In the case of medical marijuana, the city of Madison filed a lawsuit before the November general election challenging the process used to gather the signatures to place the issue on the ballot.

When the initiative process was placed in the Constitution in the early 1990s, Mississippi had five congressional districts. To successfully place an initiative on the ballot, signatures must be obtained equally from all five of those districts. The state now has four congressional districts making it mathematically impossible, the city of Madison contends in its ongoing lawsuit, to meet the constitutional mandate.

For countless initiative efforts since Mississippi lost a U.S. House seat based on the 2000 Census, initiative sponsors had been striving, based on the instructions they received from the Secretary of State, to gather one-fifth of the signatures from the five congressional districts in effect in the 1990s. Everyone accepted that as a commonsense approach.

But then along came the city of Madison and its lawsuit. The Supreme Court punted on deciding the issue before the November general election, but it has now agreed to hear oral arguments on the case in April.

If the Supreme Court does strike down the medical marijuana initiative, it only makes sense that some group would file a lawsuit demanding that voter identification also be found invalid.

Incidentally, the only other initiative to make it completely through the process and be approved by voters since 2000 was a Farm Bureau-sponsored proposal that prevents the government from taking private property through eminent domain for the use of another private entity. Farm Bureau argued that eminent domain should only be used to take private property for public use, such as for roads. Voters in 2011 agreed with Farm Bureau by an overwhelming margin. That year, 63% voted in favor of the requirement that a person had to have a government-issued photo identification to vote, and 73% approved the Farm Bureau proposal limiting the use of eminent domain.

It could be less likely that the eminent domain initiative would be challenged should the court rule against medical marijuana. But what is a certainty is that many voting rights groups oppose voter ID, saying it has a history of suppressing voter turnout among minorities. On the other hand, state Republicans hailed the voter ID requirement as a major victory when it was passed.

Many state Republican leaders now are hoping the state’s high court strikes down the medical marijuana initiative. Many state leaders have lamented that the initiative severely limits the ability of state and local governments to regulate and to tax what could be a lucrative marijuana industry.

Earlier this session, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann expended considerable political capital to garner the votes to pass a bill in the Senate to create a medical marijuana program that would go into effect should the Supreme Court strike down the initiative. Hosemann’s effort to pass the bill led to the Senate being in session to near 2 a.m. earlier this month.

The bill, which is now pending in the House, places many more restrictions on the medical marijuana program than does the initiative. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the Senate bill gives the state the authority to levy taxes on the program, with a large portion of the revenue from the taxes designated for education.

It almost appears the Senate is sending a message to the Supreme Court justices that voters will not be too mad if the initiative is struck down because there would still be a medical marijuana program under the Senate bill. Interestingly, Hosemann counted his enactment of the voter ID program approved by voters as one of his crowning achievements during his tenure as secretary of state.

To ensure that achievement remains intact, Hosemann might need to develop a voter identification bill just in case that proposal also is struck down by the courts.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.