We have observed for some time a peculiar characteristic of state government during these early years of what would seem to be a lengthy Republican-dominated era to come. And that is a tendency for state power — in every sense of that term — to aggrandize itself at the expense of local prerogatives. No political adage has been more regularly invoked in recent years by the party in power than this one: "That government is best which is closest to the people." And no principle has been more regularly flouted.
There have been numerous examples of this, ranging from the infamous bill in the 2011 session of the General Assembly prohibiting local governments from enacting antidiscrimination measures to a whole blizzard of measures imposing state control over every aspect of local educational choice. The most recent example of out-of-control statism is embedded, as it turns out, in the premises of the notorious photo ID bill that brings the process of voting in Tennessee perilously close to the specter of a "show-us-your-papers" society.
The sins and shortcomings of this measure, based on a template supplied by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national right-wing clearing house, are manifold. Billed as a means of eliminating fraud, it works instead as a means of inhibiting voter registration and limiting the franchise. Reality check: There have been few instances in Tennessee political history — if any at all — of election fraud caused by forged personal IDs, but there are hundreds of thousands of potential Tennessee voters — ranging from students to elderly citizens not required to have photos on their driver's licenses — who are inconvenienced by the requirements of the photo ID law.
But here's the kicker: In all good faith, the city of Memphis undertook to satisfy the law's requirements for photo IDs to be issued by a bona fide state or federal "entity." City attorney Herman Morris first expressed a caveat: "The administration of the city of Memphis does not support the new state requirement that challenges voters to produce a photo ID to exercise their constitutionally protected right to vote." But he then proposed that "the issuance of photo ID cards through the Memphis library system" not only fulfilled that standard set by the law but would tap a ready supply of public-spirited and informed citizens.
Word has now come down from state election coordinator Mark Goins, however, that such IDs will not be accepted. Why not? Because, in the opinion of one of the bill's primary sponsors, state representative Debra Maggart of Hendersonville, local governments would cheat. As reported by Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, investigating the case of a city councilman whose council ID was judged ineligible, Maggart "specifically chose not to include city and county-government issued photo IDs for employees because she feared it might be abused by some local governments."
We know how to read that. To recast the slogan mentioned in the first paragraph: "That government is least trustworthy which is closest to the people." And Memphis, with its large urban population of potential voters, is considered to be particularly untrustworthy. To put it bluntly, we've been targeted.