Tennessee's Voter ID Laws Draw Criticism

As next year's elections draw near, critics say the new ID laws are an attempt to suppress the vote

When Tennessee's new voter ID laws take effect on Jan. 1, their ostensible purpose will be to cut down on voter fraud. But critics say the only fraud lies in the notion that the new law is actually intended to preserve the integrity of the ballot box.

"It's billed as something to prevent voter fraud," says Sheryl Rollins, head of the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP. "But in the African-American community, it's seen as a pretext for keeping people from voting for President Obama. And it has a chilling effect on a community that has been disenfranchised for hundreds of years."

As of January, Tennessee will be one of 15 states with a photo identification law, and one of seven to set the law in motion in 2012. The first election that will be governed by the new law will be the March 6 presidential preference primary, which will also include several Knox County races, including four school board seats.

"In a nutshell, you have to have a state or federal ID, such as your Tennessee Driver's License or state-issued ID or your federal passport," says Cliff Rodgers, administrator of the Knox County Election Commission. "I want to emphasize that expired driver's licenses and passports will also be accepted. We don't care if you can actually drive or not; if it's you, we're good to go."

Other examples of valid IDs are military identifications and photo gun permits; not accepted, however, are student IDs and photo IDs not issued by the state or federal governments. The Election Commission website at knoxcounty.org/election has a complete list of requirements and exemptions, as well as frequently asked questions.

According to Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, the new laws in Tennessee and other states are part of a targeted attack on voting rights aimed at disenfranchising low-income, elderly, and disabled blocs.

"There have been 38 states that have introduced legislation that impedes voting along every step of the process, trying to create barriers to the ballot box," Weinberg says. "A range of laws from requiring photo IDs to prohibiting the use of state-issued student IDs to reducing the number of days in early voting periods.

"In some states, legislation has been introduced to create more burdensome bureaucratic requirements for volunteer groups registering new voters. And what appears to be a series of disconnected measures is in fact a sophisticated, well-funded campaign to fund laws in as many states as possible to disenfranchise minority, low-income and student voters."

The original legislative sponsor of Tennessee's voter ID bill is Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro). But the real source of voter ID and other, similar disenfranchising legislation is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), says Mary Mancini of Tennessee Citizen Action, a public interest and consumer rights organization.

ALEC bills itself as "an organization of state legislators which favors federalism and conservative public policy solutions." Says Mancini, "It's basically a group funded by large corporations and people with money; they invite congressmen to go to conventions for free every year on the corporate dime. At these meetings, they craft legislation that's usually friendly to large corporations and unfriendly to working people."

In addition to voter ID and like-minded legislation, other ALEC model legislation has included tort reform limiting damages against corporations, like the bill Tennessee passed earlier this year; bills affecting consumer rights and worker compensation; laws to loosen environmental standards, and many other initiatives.

All of which begs the question: Is voter fraud—against which voter ID will allegedly provide an important safeguard—really a significant problem in the first place? Or more to the point, is it significant enough to offset the hardships it will create for a considerable sector of the population?

According to a survey by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, 11 percent of eligible voters nationwide lack a government-issued photo ID. Looking narrowly at Kansas, South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, and Tennessee—all of which will have passed voter ID laws that take effect before the next election—the center found that a total of 3.2 million eligible voters in those five states lacked a valid photo ID.

"Is fraud a real problem? That's a good question," says Mancini. "It's one we asked repeatedly when the bill was being heard, and we were not given any tangible evidence of rampant voter fraud. It's a solution in search of a problem. We already have a system in place that catches fraud."

The one oft-cited example of fraud, says Mancini, was a 2006 incident wherein three Shelby County poll workers were indicted on 37 counts of voter fraud. "But they were caught and punished, so the system worked," she says. "And since these were poll workers, the voter ID law wouldn't have helped anyway. The fraud committed in Tennessee has usually been by people in power."

Weinberg says the new law will have a negative effect on those with limited resources and those with limited access to facilities for obtaining photo identification: blacks, Latinos, immigrants, the elderly, the disabled, the poor. And when would-be voters seeking proper photo IDs do arrive at government offices with documents in hand, they are often met with long waits, confusion, and frustration—as in the well-publicized case of a Chattanooga woman who was denied an ID because her birth certificate didn't have her married name.

"What we see happen a lot is individuals standing in line for hours for a photo ID and being turned away because they don't have the right documentation," Weinberg says.

"We're taking away people's right to vote and then telling them they have to have a very specific government-issued photo ID to get it back, and we're confusing them in the process," says Mancini. "It's un-American and undemocratic."

Some further notes on the new policy: People who show up at the polls without a valid ID will be able to fill out provisional ballots, and will then have two business days to bring a valid photo ID to the Election Commission office.

Exceptions to the law include those with religious objections to having their photographs taken, and indigent voters. In both instances, voters will be permitted to sign an affidavit on election day. Everyone 65 and older is eligible to vote absentee by mail.

All of these rules and exemptions apply to early voting as well, which begins Feb. 15 for the March 6 primary.