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Letter from the Editor

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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

brucev@memphisflyer.com

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