Note to reporters who cover Mississippi’s state government: When Michael Watson says something is a fact, you might want to check behind him.
That’s a lesson the Capitol reporters learned recently after the secretary of state incorrectly claimed that Mississippi’s voter ID law was susceptible to being nullified because one of its key provisions was only enshrined in the state constitution and not in state law.
In a radio interview late last month, following a state Supreme Court ruling that voided medical marijuana over a technicality in the state’s initiative process, Watson warned that voter ID could become a victim of the high court’s decision as well.
That still may be true, but it won’t be for the reason Watson provided.
He claimed that although Mississippi lawmakers, after voters approved a ballot initiative in 2011 requiring photo identification at the polls, codified most of those provisions into state law the following year, they left out the part that every Mississippian needing voter identification was entitled to having an ID card furnished free by the state. Watson argued that lawmakers needed to hurry up and fix that omission or risk having all of voter ID thrown out.
If Watson had been correct in his facts, one could argue that it was not politically astute for a Republican supporter of voter ID to broadcast to potential plaintiffs where the law was vulnerable to attack.
But he was not correct.
Delbert Hosemann, Watson’s predecessor and now the state’s lieutenant governor, set the record straight last week. He cited the code section where the free ID card provision can be found. Hosemann would know. Implementing voter ID, free of litigation, was one of his great achievements as secretary of state.
Although Hosemann, in his statement correcting the record, did not call out Watson by name, that was just being diplomatic. Hosemann and everyone else knows where this misinformation started: with the public official who is supposed to be an authority on the state’s election laws. Obviously neither Watson nor his aides spent much time looking up the laws on voter ID before he spoke.
Given Watson’s job description, maybe it’s understandable why the reporters who helped disseminate this bad information did not independently verify its accuracy first. Now they should know better.