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Secretary of State praises changes in state election laws

By By Chris Allen Baker / staff writer
May 5, 2002
As Mississippi's secretary of state, Eric Clark directs an agency that administers elections laws, issues state documents and publications and supervises 16th Section School Trust Lands.
Clark, a Democrat and former state representative who is now serving in his second term as secretary of state, recently discussed his work with The Meridian Star editorial board.
The Meridian Star: Please tell us about your legislative program from the recent session.
Eric Clark: Election reform was the focus of my office's legislative agenda this year. About one year ago, I formed a 25-member task force to study the Florida election and to identify what we could do to (avoid) those problems here to the extent that we can financially afford to do it. We recommended three bills to the Legislature, and they all passed.
The Star: Could you tell us a little about the bills?
Clark: The most important one has to do with setting up a computerized statewide voter registration system, where each county is linked to other counties and with the Secretary of State's Office. When someone dies or goes to jail for a disenfranchising crime or when they move, we can electronically transmit that information.
Another bill has to do with the intent of the voter. Our law talks about the kind of ballots that count and the kind that do not count.
The third bill requires election commissioners to report over-votes and under-votes.
The Star: What is your motivation behind appealing the federal court decision regarding the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the judicial races?
Clark: It was right at $1 million that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent in the judicial elections. The advertisements were clearly intended to influence the outcome of the elections or else they would not have spent the money.
I want to make it clear that there was never any effort on the part of the state to take the ads off the television. Our intent was solely to get the Chamber of Commerce to comply with state law and report how the money was raised and spent.
My concern is next year, in the state elections, you're going to see independent committees' ads pop up and not report because they don't say "vote for" or "vote against."
The Star: What are the possibilities of open primaries in our elections?
Clark: I support open primaries.
However, two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court knocked the legs from under that when they invalidated the California law which was the model we were all looking at. The sense I have had is that the issue was not viable since the Supreme Court acted.
The Star: Is it time that Mississippi got out from under the federal voting rights act?
Clark: I don't think that is going to happen in the foreseeable future. It is a cumbersome process, but it is one that we work with fairly effectively. It is unusual now that any bill that is passed by the Legislature … is turned down.
The Star: Where do we stand on voter identification?
Clark: I proposed a compromise bill on voter I.D. and worked hard the first three weeks of the (2002 legislative) session to get a bipartisan and biracial consensus on it. And had it come out of committee, I am confident it would have passed.
Over the years that issue has been terribly polarized and politicized. You can't pass a major elections bill in Mississippi without bipartisan and biracial support. The bill had that, but it was not brought up in committee because there is a fear of touching the issue.
The Star: Tell us about your work with 16th Section lands.
Clark: We have 108 school districts that have 16th Section land in Mississippi. The reform movement of 16th Section land in the past 30 years is one of our great success stories.
Thirty years ago, all 16th Section Land in Mississippi brought in about $3 million. Today it brings in close to $50 million.
Meridian is a great example. The Bonita Lakes Mall is on 16th Section Land and money that is collected from the rent on Bonita Lakes Mall goes to Meridian schools. It will bring millions and millions of dollars over the course of that lease.
The people of Meridian have shown to the whole state that you can attract major commercial development on 16th Section Land and make millions for the school if you manage the land wisely.