Letter from the Editor

| July 07, 2011
- © Tom Schmucker | Dreamstime.com

Have you heard about SB1798? Neither had I until a friend — a former Memphian who lives in Nashville — alerted me to it. The bill, which is now law, suspends a person's driver's license if he or she has outstanding criminal court costs. So what, I hear you say. Sounds reasonable, right?

Not so much. My friend, who is an attorney, points out that this bill, in partnership with other more restrictive voter laws passed by the Republican legislature, unfairly targets poor people's voting rights.

Here's how it works: Going forward, you will be unable to vote in Tennessee without showing a state-issued I.D. What is the most common state-issued I.D.? If you said "driver's license," you win at GOP bingo. In fact, the GOP passed several laws making it more difficult for poor people to keep a driver's license, including raising taxes on speeding fines.

Lower-income Tennesseans are more likely to be arrested, thereby making them more likely to be affected by the criminal court costs law. Notably, the law does not target those who fail to pay civil court costs or family court costs — only criminal court costs, no matter whether the crime is a felony or a misdemeanor. The only way to avoid court costs in criminal court is to be declared not guilty.

This appears to be a targeted voter suppression campaign by the GOP — a backdoor poll tax to make it more difficult for lower-income Tennesseans to vote. The strategy is simple: 1) require a valid I.D. (driver's license) to vote; 2) make it more difficult for poor people to maintain a driver's license, thereby making it more difficult for them to vote.

SB1798 does not specifically target one community, but its de facto impact will be disproportionately felt in communities where arrest levels and poverty levels are higher. Like Memphis. Which, oddly enough, votes heavily Democratic. What a coincidence.

If you don't pay your taxes, if you don't pay court costs from your expensive divorce, if you get sued for malfeasance and don't pay your courts costs, it doesn't matter. You can vote. But if you get stopped for speeding and don't pay your court costs, you lose your state-issued I.D.

These voter suppression laws are being passed in almost every state where the GOP controls the legislature. Why would Republicans want to stop a certain class of citizens from voting? Seems almost antidemocratic, doesn't it?

Hope everyone had a happy Fourth of July.

Bruce VanWyngarden


Comments (36)

Showing 1-25 of 36

Steve Ross is producing educational material on this and the Voter ID issue in general that I will help distribute while out introducing myself to the constituents of District 7.

Posted by sbanbury on 07/07/2011 at 10:43 AM

I think any low or high income person can follow simple laws to maintain their driver's license. If someone can't keep their license then he or she is probably incapable to vote on issues that affect everyone's life.

Posted by CCM on 07/07/2011 at 11:07 AM

CCM: you either didn't read the letter, didn't understand it or chose to ignore its truth, three things conservatives excel at.

Voter suppression is the next best weapon to false claims of vote fraud for conservatives to skew elections in their favor.

Posted by M_Awesomeberg on 07/07/2011 at 11:58 AM

Well, they gotta do something, what with all these municipalities and states moving away from easily hacked electronic voting machines.

Posted by Jeff on 07/07/2011 at 1:08 PM

Except for Tennessee, Jeff.

Posted by mad_merc on 07/07/2011 at 1:52 PM

First of all, let me set the record straight: I'm NOT a Republican and I fall into the poor category, but I couldn't let this ridiculous Flyer editorial pass without comment. VanWyngarden claims, first of all, that SB1798 seeks to prevent low income folks from voting. He makes no bones about this being an evil GOP plot. Further, he claims the GOP "passed several laws making it more difficult for poor people to keep a driver's license, including raising taxes on speeding fines."
What are these "several laws" that were not enumerated in the editorial? I see only one here, and the claim that the real intent of the law is to keep the poor from voting is spurious at best and condescending to the poor. At worst, it's doing Democrat party trench work while posing as a journalist.
VanWyngarden claims poor people are more likely to be arrested without providing proof for the claim. He also argues that the law does not target "those who fail to pay civil court costs or family court costs, only criminal court costs," inferring that the "rich" who fail to pay said costs get off the hook and retain their voting rights. Civil issues and family court issues are not criminal issues, which put them into different categories, making it akin to comparing apples and rotten tomatoes. The Republican measure targets convicted criminals, period. Not poor criminals- ALL convicted criminals, regardless of their financial status. He further claims that the GOP drew a bead on Memphis, the one large Democrat bastion in the state.
First of all, if you're a criminal, you've failed in your duty as a citizen. By failing to pay court costs, you've failed in your duty as a citizen once again. VanWyngarden seems to promote the idea that citizens can cherry-pick which civic obligations they deign to meet.
Emperor VanWyngarden has no clothes in this case. I don't want a citizenry that selects which obligations they should meet. If you're a criminal and fail also to pay your way, you don't DESERVE the most important citizen franchise.

Posted by Steamed on 07/07/2011 at 11:09 PM

Merc, they're just being proactive, getting a jump on the competition. You never know when some whistleblower is going to gum up the works. If you can steal an election through legislation, you can save the miracle midnight swing in votes for those really close elections that matter.

Posted by Jeff on 07/08/2011 at 7:34 AM

If your license is suspended, can't you still get a state ID?

Posted by cdel on 07/08/2011 at 10:01 AM

Steamed, have you ever heard of the concept, "dismissed with costs?"

"Costs" often wind up being more than the fine.

And since when did getting a traffic ticket make one a criminal?

Come down from there and join the rest of us who walk on pavement and not water.

Posted by B on 07/08/2011 at 10:31 AM

The state issued ID card costs $8, requires the same paperwork as a DL.

Posted by Neondragon on 07/08/2011 at 10:34 AM

How did Bruce miss that?

Posted by AllanHase on 07/08/2011 at 1:24 PM

I did not "miss that," Seasoned. The fact that someone can (walk or take the bus?) to go buy a state-issued ID card does not affect the point of this column, which is that another barrier has been thrown up to make it more difficult for some people to vote. Why would a political party want to do that, I wonder?

Posted by BruceVanWyngarden on 07/08/2011 at 6:53 PM

Poor people,who are mainly unemployed, WILL be affected the most by the law. On any given day, 201 Poplar courts are filled with poor minorities who can't afford attorneys, court costs or fines. Our court systems make most of its monies on the backs of those who can least afford the costs. I'm not talking about animal-like criminals, who deserve the wrath of the courts. But people who have a hard time just getting their vehicles fixed to pass inspection, usually can't afford insurance. Let alone having their car taken away because of this.

Posted by mightyisis on 07/09/2011 at 1:03 AM

Think I had the wrong law in mind. My Bad!

Posted by mightyisis on 07/09/2011 at 1:06 AM


You misspelled 'parties'.

Posted by Neondragon on 07/09/2011 at 7:13 AM

Neondragon, don't come here with that "both sides do it" crap, because in this case they most certainly do not. Democrats have no reason to suppress minority turnout -- that's where most of their votes come from.

Posted by autoegocrat on 07/09/2011 at 7:21 AM

Just for the record, I only asked about the state ID because I'm dumb and didn't know. I wasn't trying to make a political point.

Posted by cdel on 07/09/2011 at 8:06 AM

@Scott B. You have my vote! Still like that moustache......

Posted by mightyisis on 07/09/2011 at 9:30 AM

To be perfectly honest, I'm a bit torn on this. I have witnessed voter fraud (one person voting more than once) and feel that there should be some sort of safeguard against it. On the other hand, the handful of people that may actually get away with casting more than one vote can in no way affect an election outcome like the people controlling the electronic, no paper log, easily hacked voting machines can. I'm sure there is a simple solution to this, I'm just not sure what it is.

Posted by mad_merc on 07/09/2011 at 11:51 AM

Good article Bruce; although you are using the argument of the exception rather than the rule. I do agree with your main points, nonetheless. If a person requires their driver's license to get to work to help pay their fines, etc.; then how can they travel to and from if there are no bus routes or it's too far for walking?

Posted by CHG on 07/09/2011 at 3:52 PM

I don't know what to think. If anyone needs me this evening, I'll be unwinding at the local duct tape range, ripping off a few strips before heading home.

Posted by Phlo on 07/09/2011 at 5:56 PM


Just because poll taxes, refusal to accept ID, absentee ballot dumping etc. didn't happen to your comfortable ass, doesn't mean they didn't happen to some of us.

If you think that only the evil Republicans ran voting registration in Shelby County, you are pathetically naive.

I think that you know damn good and well that Democrats will happily suppress any votes if it benefits them, and you are merely defending the practice with your revisionist crap.

Posted by Neondragon on 07/09/2011 at 6:31 PM

Should your DL be suspended for unpaid fines/court costs whatever, the holder still has the actual physical license. Only if an officer pulls you over and runs it will it be determined to be invalid. The poll workers only check the database address against the actual address on the license, not whether it's a 'valid' license or not. The poll workers have no interest in whether it's a valid license or not. If a policeman on a traffic stop confiscates it, then you're out of luck. Of course all of this will be unnecessary if you simply obey the law. Remember, traffic cams don't count.

Posted by Midtown Mark on 07/09/2011 at 10:07 PM

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) today requested that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) carefully review highly restrictive photo identification voter requirements that are under consideration or recently signed into law in several states that could potentially disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters. . .

Posted by sbanbury on 07/10/2011 at 9:43 AM

@Midtown Mark - When your license is suspended, they send you a postmarked envelope and tell you to send your ID back to the state. If I remember correctly, they threaten you with a fine if you don't.

@Neondragon - If you've got a specific allegation to make, let's hear it. The Republicans are the ones who are trying to pass this particular bill.

Posted by autoegocrat on 07/10/2011 at 2:49 PM
Showing 1-25 of 36

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