Voting -- a central rite of any healthy representative democracy -- is about to get a whole lot harder for a significant number of citizens in Tennessee.
In 2011, Tennessee joined 14 other states by introducing legislation that requires voters to show photo identification in order to cast their ballots in elections. Supporters of these laws define themselves as crusaders against a menacing tide of election fraud. Opponents cry partisan politics, claiming the election fraud scare is a red herring being used to disenfranchise voters.
Tennessee's new law states that as of Jan. 1, 2012, citizens must have one of the following forms of current or expired photo identification in order to vote: a Tennessee driver's license, a U.S. passport, federal or state government issued employee identification, U.S. military ID, a veteran identification card, or a state-issued handgun carry permit. The law also allows current and expired photo driver's licenses from other states and territories. In addition, the law makes exceptions for absentee voters who vote by mail, residents of licensed nursing homes who vote at their facilities, hospitalized voters, voters with religious objections to being photographed and indigent voters who aren't able to obtain photo ID without paying a fee.
People without photo ID will be allowed to vote with a provisional ballot. They will then have to produce a valid photo ID within two business days following the election for their vote to count. Voters who don't have one of these acceptable forms of photo ID must apply for a free voter ID card from the Department of Safety and Homeland Security at driver service centers across the state. In order to obtain the free voter ID, voters must show some proof of citizenship (such as a birth certificate) as well as two proofs of Tennessee residency (such as a utility bill, vehicle registration/title or bank statement).
The bumpy road to ID
In writing, the process sounds simple enough, but several cases have proven the opposite to be true.
The experience of 96-year-old Chattanooga resident Dorothy Cooper illustrates many of the difficulties citizens are having complying with the new law. The bespectacled African-American woman made national news and was mentioned in a campaign fundraising email by Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester, who lashed out at the law for suppressing the votes of Tennessee citizens. On Oct. 3, 2011, Cooper attempted to obtain an ID but was turned away because her married name didn't match the name on her birth certificate.
When she returned on October 20, she came prepared with her birth certificate, her lease, her telephone bill and her marriage certificate. This time she was told she needed to show a Social Security card. After a chain of interventions that started with Democratic Party activist Charline Kilpatrick and resulted in the involvement of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's communications director Adam Kleinheider and the Tennessee Department of Safety, Cooper finally secured the free identification that she is promised under the law.
On Sept. 9, 2011, a couple from Murfreesboro, Tenn., encountered similar trouble trying to obtain a free ID. Lee Campbell, a retired guidance counselor, accompanied his wife, Phyllis, to a testing station to get her card. Mrs. Campbell has a driver's license, but her license has no photo -- an option for drivers over 60. According to the Tennessee Department of Safety, a total of 230,000 Tennessee citizens have similar non-photo driver's licenses. Of that number, 126,000 are registered to vote, many of whom are senior citizens.
When the Campbells requested their free ID, they were encouraged to spend $8 or $12 to simply renew Phyllis' driver's license, presumably for one that had the photo she had opted not to have in the first place. This confusing turn of events was generated by a bureaucratic snarl -- when voters with non-photo driver's licenses ask for free photo IDs, state offices are required to do additional paperwork to merge the information on the two documents.
Despite the fact that the law requires the issuing of a free voter ID and offers the option for non-photo driver's licenses, it's likely that voters unclear on the law will not know that they have recourse when they are told they need to pay for a driver's license with a photo if they want to vote.
The cases of Cooper and the Campbells have resulted in officials citing the need to further educate clerks on the implementation of the new photo ID requirements for voting. But, with the presidential elections less than a year away, some question whether there is enough time to ensure that every eligible voter has easy access to the free ID the law promises.
The Campbells were recently asked to testify before a House subcommittee in Washington, D.C., to relate their experience with Tennessee's new law. At that forum, entitled "Excluded from Democracy: The Impact of Recent State Voting Law Changes," Elections Subcommittee Ranking Member Charles Gonzalez (D-TX) submitted testimony that ID laws like the one adopted in Tennessee do little if anything to address or stop voter fraud. Instead, the congressman argued that such laws only serve to suppress voting.