State election coordinator Mark Goins has been making the rounds of Tennessee's 95 counties, doing his best to explain the 2011 photo-ID law passed by the General Assembly earlier this year — a law that will govern all Tennessee elections, beginning January 1st. Goins made two stops in Memphis (see Politics, p. 14), and, to award him the benefit of the doubt, he seemed genuinely conscientious and complete in his explications of the somewhat confusing law, its requirements, special conditions, and exemptions.
In only one particular was he arguably less than forthcoming. Given that the Republican-dominated legislature cited the prospect of election fraud as a major reason for the bill's passage, Goins was asked: Was it not true that the requirement for voters to present a valid photo ID, issued under state or federal auspices, would not have prevented the most notorious case of recent election fraud — the fact that ballots were cast in the names of dead voters during the 2005 Ophelia Ford-Terry Roland special state Senate election? It is a matter of historical record that miscreant poll workers, not voters with bogus credentials, were guilty of that misprision and were prosecuted for it.
All we can say is, we remain skeptical, despite the election coordinator's missionary efforts. What we do know about the new law is that it inconveniences students (college photo IDs are not acceptable under the law, on the grounds that they are too easily forged) and seniors, whose ability to bustle about and acquire new photo IDs is, for obvious reasons, limited (even granting that Goins' office, to its credit, has sought to facilitate the process for them, somewhat). Democrats have pointed out, with some justice, that college students and seniors are two groups which, in given elections, have favored their party disproportionately.
Inasmuch as photo-ID legislation has been urged upon state legislatures virtually everywhere by conservative-oriented national lobbies and GOP policy-making bodies, it is hard to shake the conviction that such laws do in fact have the effect of suppressing certain classes of voters.
Our doubts as to the bona fides of the voter photo-ID law are increased when we take into account the overtly disingenuous behavior of Republicans in the legislature regarding the 2008 Tennessee Voter Confidence Act requiring simultaneous paper records of electronic voting. In advance of the 2010 election cycle, when the act was to go into effect, GOP principals, including Secretary of State Tre Hargett, whose crusading fervor in that regard has been matched only by his public zeal for the photo-ID law, did their best to delay the law's implementation and were able to kill it altogether in the last session of the General Assembly. The excuse was the expense of retrofitting state election machinery, though a federal fund had already been set aside to pay for the conversion process.
Given the political tendencies in today's Tennessee, where Republicans (ironically, ever since that watershed 2010 election) have begun to totally dominate voting, even in formerly yellow-dog Democratic enclaves, we wonder if the GOP hasn't needlessly committed itself to restrictive measures and repressive attitudes that are no longer needed. The photo-ID law is a case in point.