Opponents of Tennessee's Voter ID bill fight back.
By Chris Davis
Beginning January 1, 2012, registered Tennessee voters who want to go to the polls early or to cast their ballots in person on Election Day will have to present some form of government-issued photo identification. Supporters of the law claim it was designed to prevent already rare occurrences of fraud by voter-impersonation.
Critics, who've watched various other strikingly similar laws enacted by Republican-controlled legislatures across the country since 2009, claim the bill resembles model legislation devised by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative Koch Industries-connected policy shop for state legislators and representatives from the private sector. And that law was passed for less honorable reasons than its sponsors would have us believe.
"This is a political problem. We're a nonpartisan organization, but the people behind this legislation aren't," says Madeleine Taylor, executive director of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP. "It's an attempt to suppress the vote," she says, describing the Tennessee law as being typical of other recent Republican-backed initiatives in states such as Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin.
"This isn't a black-or-white issue either," Taylor continues. "It will affect the poor, the elderly, and the disabled."
Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action and former host of the WRVU public affairs show Liberadio, agrees. "What people need to know most about this law is that it's not simple," she says.
December 10th is International Human Rights Day, a time set aside to celebrate nondiscrimination and to honor champions of civil justice. This year, it's also been identified as a national day of action by civic groups, such as the NAACP and the National Urban League, that are joining forces with churches, labor unions, and other like-minded organizations to educate, prepare for, and protest the recent multistate mania for voter ID legislation.
In Tennessee, No Barriers to the Ballot Box, a coalition that includes the ACLU, AFL-CIO, Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, Tennessee Citizen Action, and other civic and religiously affiliated organizations, is urging citizens to circulate a petition to repeal the new Tennessee voter ID law.
The petition is available online at protectthevotetn.org.
Mancini, an outspoken critic of the photo ID law and a leader in the fight for its repeal, says resistance has been building steadily since September. "I've only received one phone call and one email in favor of the legislation," she adds. "There are 2,000 signatures on the petition to repeal the law."
Response, she says, grows measurably every time the media breaks another story about people like Dorothy Cooper, a 96-year-old woman from Chattanooga who was denied a voter ID because she was unable to produce a copy of the marriage certificate that would explain her name change, and like Al Star, a homeless man in Nashville who recently encountered resistance when he attempted to apply for a free Tennessee voter ID.
The response, Mancini says, has been threefold: to repeal the law, serve those the law affects, and monitor how the law is implemented and observed. "All three of these things are happening simultaneously," she says.
Van Turner, chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party and chairman of the legal redress committee for the Memphis chapter of the NAACP, admits that until recently the organized response to the voter ID law may not have been obvious. But he thinks that the movement has evolved into something stronger than it might have otherwise, because it has grown organically.
"What we're seeing now is a lot of synergy between many entities that are loosely held together," Turner says, citing events such as the informational meetings being organized by civic-minded groups, including the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and religious institutions such as Memphis' Metropolitan Baptist Church.
"We need to replicate that kind of event at other churches all around the city," he says. "Times 10."
Madeleine Taylor worries — and a recent Middle Tennessee State University study suggests she's probably right — that even people who are aware of the law don't really understand it. She thinks the biggest challenge its opponents face is reaching the people who may not know that they need better information.
"For the young people, you have to reach out electronically," she says. "Others will have to be reached through trusted organizations like the NAACP and their churches. It remains to be seen, however, if even trusted institutions can reach deep into a community with election fatigue, where participation in the electoral process appears to be bottoming out.
"We've been slack," Taylor concedes. "Usually, when people aren't voting it's either because we agree pretty much with what's going on or because we feel like we can't effect change no matter what we do."
Fewer than 20 people attended a recent Saturday afternoon meeting at Metropolitan Baptist Church where Election Commissioner George C. Monger III was invited to explain the new voter ID requirements and answer questions from the congregation. Most of the attendees were over 50. All were registered voters with a valid government-issued ID. None would be directly affected by the law.
"But every person in this room probably knows 10 people who will be," Monger said.
Monger made it clear that in this case he was only the messenger. "I'm not responsible for the law," he said. "Nationwide voter fraud is 0.03 percent. That's less than 1 percent of a problem."
Monger stressed that the new law was to establish identity, not residency. The questions he was asked were, for the most part, practical, and many could be answered with a simple yes or no:
Can you really use a state-issued gun permit? (Yes.)
Will a valid student ID work? Or an expired Arkansas driver's license? Or a municipal employee identification? (No, yes, and no.)
How about a long-expired passport? (Probably, as long as the election worker can tell that the person in the photograph is vintage you.)
When a man sitting near the back of the room asked if the new ID law was different from a poll tax, Monger broke character long enough to deliver a more personal assessment of the situation.
"I'm speaking only for myself now," he said. "I'm not speaking as an elected official. I'm going to take my badge off and put it right here in my pocket. Now, from my point of view, there is not any difference," he said. "In my opinion, it's a barrier to voting."
Apparently inspired by the candor, Phyllis Aluko, an attorney in attendance, made a vigorous request:
"Now, tell everybody about the free voter IDs that aren't really free," she said. Monger acknowledged the comments and explained how the Tennessee attorney general Robert Cooper ruled that the photo ID law would constitute a poll tax unless the $8.75 cost could somehow be waived for those who are unable to pay.
"But you still have to have proof of citizenship," Aluko added. "And a passport isn't free. If you have to request a birth certificate from vital records, it isn't free."
"And nobody knows what any of this will cost taxpayers," Monger added.
He reminded the crowd that Drivers Service Centers on Summer Avenue and in east Shelby County were two of 15 facilities across the state that issue voter IDs on the first Saturday of every month from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
After taking a few more questions, Monger finished his presentation and the meeting dissolved.
Aluko elaborated on her assertion that the free IDs aren't free:
"People don't always realize the barriers poor people face. There are logistical barriers, geographical barriers. There aren't sites where you can get IDs in every county. People are worried about paying their rent and getting their medications, and now they have to worry about paying to get their birth certificate."
"We've still got a lot of work to do," Metropolitan pastor Reginald Porter said after the presentation. "I've been communicating with other pastors and now is the time to act. The next step will be to help drive people to get their IDs. I am especially interested in these stations that are open on Saturdays."
Van Turner, who attended the meeting at Metropolitan, says that in addition to raising awareness, the NAACP is prepared to pursue legal action aimed at repealing the ID requirement, although he doubts that will happen until after the Tennessee Republican primary on March 6th.
"The law won't even go into effect until January 1st," he says. "And this has to be a very particular plaintiff."
In a subsequent conversation, Aluko was asked to speculate what such a "particular" plaintiff might look like.
She wasn't certain, but she anticipates problems for the indigent community, echoing many of the same concerns previously expressed by Mary Mancini.
"On the surface, the requirement to present a government-issued ID may seem reasonable," Mancini said. "But when you talk to people one-on-one, you see that the law is excessive.
"Think about somebody who has to take public transportation across two counties on their day off and is denied," she says. "It's a confusing, subjective mess."
Acceptable Voter ID
• Tennessee driver's license with a photo
(current or expired)
• A driver's license issued by another state (current or expired)
• U.S. passport (current or expired)
• Federal employee ID with photo
• State employee ID with photo (including those issued by state universities)
• U.S. military ID
• Gun permit card
Unacceptable Voter ID
• Student ID
• City government employee ID
• Non-photo state-issued driver's license
Partisanship looms large in the photo ID controversy.
By Jackson Baker
Last July, at an annual meeting at the Peabody of the Southern Legislative Conference, presided over by Shelby Countian Mark Norris, currently majority leader of the Tennessee state Senate, one of the visiting dignitaries was Tre Hargett, another former Shelby County legislator, now a resident of Nashville and Tennessee secretary of state.
The legislative session just past had been a triumphant one for Norris, who firmed up his place in the state's governing Republican hierarchy and lent his name to the Norris-Todd bill, which has turned out to be one of the guiding instruments of the ongoing merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools.
The bill, introduced in the House of Representatives by state representative Curry Todd of Collierville, imposed a two-and-a-half-year delay on the merger forced by the city board's surrender of the MCS charter and built in a possible escape clause for suburban entities to go it alone in 2013 with separate school districts of their own. When all was said and done, Norris had pulled off something of a save for the heavily GOP suburbs.
A year earlier, Hargett had also executed a coup for the GOP, the great majority of whose members had, in a moment of unaccustomed bipartisanship, voted along with Democrats in 2008 for what was called the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act (TVCA). In essence, the bill called for statewide adoption, by the 2010 election cycle, of optical-scan voting machines capable of maintaining a paper trail of all Tennessee elections.
In 2008, the year of an Obama/Democratic sweep nationwide, both branches of the Tennessee legislature unexpectedly went Republican, and the state GOP hierarchy became more and more reluctant to follow through with TVCA. When Hargett was elected secretary of state in January 2009, he became a virtual cheerleader for slowing down implementation of the act in the 2009 general assembly.
Hargett argued that retrofitting the state's election machinery would be prohibitively costly. This was despite the fact that the federal government had already allocated $37 million under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) — $12 million more than was needed — to carry out the retrofitting.
With the GOP's legislative majority holding the fort, the HAVA funds were never tapped, the TVCA was stalled, and the 2010 elections in Tennessee went ahead sans benefit of paper trail. And, when those elections resulted in an even more lopsided Republican legislative majority, the 2011 General Assembly voted for a de facto repeal of TVCA, making the act's provisions dependent on specific requests from both county election commissions (all now outfitted with 3-2 Republican majorities) and the state election coordinator, now a former GOP legislator from Murfreesboro named Mark Goins.
So, post-session, here was Hargett at the Peabody, fresh from that victory on the vote front, devoting his energies to beating the drums for another and radically different legislative act. This one, Senate Bill 16/House Bill 7, was introduced early in the 2011 session and quickly signed by Governor Bill Haslam. Simply put, it required the presentation of a valid government-issued photo ID by anyone wishing to vote in Tennessee.
Democrats, now outnumbered 2-to-1 in the General Assembly, had put up a futile resistance, contending that the bill was aimed at suppressing the vote of African Americans, collegians, and seniors — all traditional components of the Democratic voter base and all, for one reason or another, less likely to possess photo IDs than Tennesseans at large, and especially less so than members of the suburban middle class, a group now tending heavily Republican. (College IDs had been specifically declared invalid on grounds that they were too easily forged, and existing state law exempted drivers over 60 from needing photos on their licenses.)
During a lull in proceedings during the National Association of Legislators event, Hargett was asked if the photo ID law, on behalf of which he was then on a statewide speaking tour, would not have the effect of suppressing overall vote totals in 2012.
Hargett responded with a tight smile. "No, I think what would suppress the vote would be fear of fraud on the part of the electorate." And that, he said, was the whole point of SB 16/HB 7. He had earlier been quoted in an Associated Press article as saying, "I can't figure out who it would disenfranchise. The only people I can think it disenfranchises is those people who might be voting illegally."
Tennessee's photo ID law appears, in fact, to be one of several measures, including bills to abolish bargaining rights for teachers, encouraged nationwide by a corporate-sponsored group known as ALEC — for American Legislative Exchange Council.
(Another measure favored by the group and pushed in various state legislatures would have targeted any and all pressure tactics by unions in labor-management disputes and was so one-sided that the aforementioned Todd, who had personal roots in the Memphis Police Association, succeeded in derailing it as "unrelated" to anything in Tennessee.)
The Associated Press wire service led off a story on the pandemic of photo ID laws this way early in 2011: "Empowered by last year's elections, Republican leaders in about half the states are pushing to require voters to show photo ID at the polls, despite little evidence of fraud and already-substantial punishments for those who vote illegally."
And remember that unspent $37 million in federal HAVA funds, earmarked for the now moribund TVCA? According to outraged state senator Jim Kyle of Memphis, the Democrats' Senate leader, both a 95-county informational tour by Election Coordinator Goins as well as a multimedia publicity campaign regarding the photo ID law were apparently paid for by those unspent HAVA funds, on the premise that they could be used for voter education.
The Democrats' legislative caucus chairs, Mike Turner of Nashville in the House and Lowe Finney of Jackson in the Senate, filed a bill to repeal the photo ID law in mid-October, even as Goins' statewide information campaign was getting under way and sponsors of the law were calling press conferences to acquaint voters with the bill's contents and to popularize its aims.
Turner and Finney worked to turn public opinion in the opposite direction. "This new requirement will jeopardize the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans," Finney said. "We should be working to reduce barriers to the ballot box for citizens. This law puts up walls, and we intend to tear them down," Turner said.
State Democratic chairman Chip Forrester stumped the state with a similar message, appearing in Memphis with local legislators on November 3rd in advance of the first Day of Action, held on November 5th to protest the photo ID law and by way of building a groundswell for repeal.
The week before, Goins had brought his information tour to Memphis, conducting sessions at the Aging Commission on Union Avenue and at the Board of Education building on Avery Street.
Goins made a conscientious effort to allay concerns about the bill, pointing out that the law permits exemptions — e.g., for absentee voters, for residents of nursing homes or assisted-living centers, for voters with religious objections to being photographed — and that indigent voters and driver's-license holders over 60 without photo IDs could receive "express service" upgrades at driver's license centers.
State Safety and Homeland Security commissioner Bill Gibbons had meanwhile announced an agreement with 30 county clerks in Tennessee, including Shelby County clerk Wayne Mashburn, to provide free-of-charge upgraded driver's licenses with photos to drivers who possess licenses without photos.
While in Memphis, Goins also noted that voters without photo IDs could cast provisional ballots on Election Day that would be counted if they could furnish legitimate photo IDs within two days of the election.
The election coordinator patiently, at length, and with reasonable clarity answered all questions about the law. ("When I started this tour, I had an ample supply of Red Bull," he joked.) On only one question, asked by a reporter after his appearance at the Board of Education, did Goins come close to appearing stumped.
This concerned a famous circumstance stemming from a special state Senate election in Memphis in 2005. The election was held to name a successor to state senator John Ford, who had been netted by the FBI in the Tennessee Waltz sting and would eventually end up in federal prison, convicted on bribery charges. Ford's sister Ophelia became the Democratic nominee and was pitted against Republican Terry Roland, who came within a handful of votes of pulling an upset.
In the wake of that election, it was discovered that Ford had received a number of invalid votes, including one from a certifiably dead person. And during legislative debate on the photo ID law, the Ford-Roland contest came in for much citation by the bill's sponsors, along with the specter of illegal immigrants. The fact was, however, that the culprits in the case were dishonest poll workers, who did the ballot-stuffing on their own.
Root fact: Bogus voters with bogus credentials were not at issue in the case. IDs, with or without photos, played no part in the voter fraud. Asked whether the fraud could have been averted by a requirement that voters at the affected poll present valid government IDs, Goins could not say that it would have.
Thus the question remains: Was/is the photo ID law necessary?