State election officials plan to aggressively promote all aspects of Tennessee’s new law requiring voters to present photo identification in order to vote.
Secretary of State Tre Hargett, whose office oversees elections in the state, among many other duties, talked with Mark Goins, state elections coordinator, last week about plans to get the word out about the new law.
The Tennessee General Assembly passed a photo ID bill (SB0016) this year, and it has been signed by Gov. Bill Haslam. The state will require photo ID at the polls beginning Jan. 1, 2012, which means the first big test will be the state’s presidential primaries scheduled for March 5.
Hargett says the effort will be two-fold — to make sure local election officials know what to do and, more emphatically, to make sure the voting public knows about the law in advance of voting.
“We’re going to have to work all 95 counties. We need to get out there with boots on the ground and see what resources they have to make sure they fully understand how to implement that law,” Hargett said.
“I’m less concerned with our ability to implement it, because we’ve got good election people around the state. I want to get the message out, so whenever people show up at elections after January 1, they’re not saying, ‘Oh no, what is this?’”
Hargett outlined the plan in a speech to the Bellevue Breakfast Club of the Davidson County Republican Party over the holiday weekend. His speech covered the various aspects of his office’s responsibilities, ranging from publications like the state’s Blue Book to business services to its duties in overseeing elections.
He was proud that November’s elections went smoothly, with the exception of a complaint filed after the election by a Republican Senate candidate in Putnam County. Hargett’s election team had endured the experience of a website crash in the August primary due to the demand for results, a night he termed a “learning moment.”
Hargett has been making numerous public appearances in the state in an effort to educate citizens about the duties of his office. Elections, while a high-profile part of the office’s responsibilities, are far from the only task the secretary of state oversees.
Hargett is one of three Republican state constitutional officers, the others being Comptroller Justin Wilson and Treasurer David Lillard. The Davidson County Republican Party group gathers regularly for breakfast meetings, and Hargett spoke Saturday at Tee’s Fireside Cafe before about 40 people.
Hargett said his office will be active through public service announcements, getting election officials out to various civic organizations to spread the word and working through the media, including issuing press releases, on the new law. Hargett also said when the state publishes ballots next year, his office wants to make sure the new requirements are published along with them.
“I want to focus on areas where some have claimed this law would treat the elderly, or people who may be poor, unfairly,” Hargett said. “I want to make sure we approach a wide, diverse group of people, everywhere possible.”
The House passed the bill 57-35, the Senate 21-11. Most Democrats opposed the bill, saying hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans do not have photo IDs.
“On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad idea. After all, we all want open, free and fair elections, but like so many issues the devil is in the details,” House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh wrote on his blog. “Take for example the impact this legislation will have on rural communities. In Tennessee, only 44% of our counties have a driver’s license station. In our district, we only have one station for all three of our counties, while areas like Nashville & Memphis have multiple DMV’s. This makes it easier for people in cities to obtain a photo ID and vote, while some people in rural areas will have to travel 30 miles or better just to get an ID.”
During debate on the bill in the Legislature, opponents likened it to a “poll tax” which could be construed as an effort to stunt voter participation. Proposals for alternative approaches, such as showing a Medicare card, were shot down.
But in an effort to address constitutional concerns, the Legislature passed SB1666, which provides photo IDs for free for Tennesseans who need them.
Voters must sign an affidavit to obtain the photo ID. The IDs will be handled by the Department of Safety. The act is expected to result in additional state spending of $422,574 for fiscal year 2011-12 and every five years thereafter, since photo IDs expire every five years. It will also involve a one-time increase in spending of $15,500 for computer and programming costs.
Meanwhile, 16 Democratic U.S. senators have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look at whether states’ photo ID laws infringe on voting rights.
Hargett said he is hopeful the new law can withstand any legal challenge and that his office can focus on the law as it currently stands. When asked by former congressional candidate Lonnie Spivak if there were a chance to have photos placed on voter registration cards, Hargett said he didn’t think the state had the money or the capacity to do that at this time, although he liked the concept.
“Some larger counties could probably handle that. Some smaller ones probably couldn’t,” Hargett said.
He said Goins had removed 13,000 dead people from voter rolls in the state since Hargett took office. Hargett said he doesn’t mean to imply there were that many fraudulent votes cast but that anytime one fraudulent vote is cast it erodes confidence in the system overall.
But he backs the photo ID concept.
“If you rent a movie, you show a photo ID,” Hargett said. “If you want to give blood, you show a photo ID.
“We’re also working with surrounding states to compare voter rolls to make sure people are not voting in multiple states. While 99.9 percent of us would never think of voting in two different states, some people have. It’s up to us to make sure you’re only voting in one state.”
Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, sponsored the photo ID bill in the Senate, and Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, carried it in the House.
“Although it passed in the Senate four years in a row, it would get to the House and die,” Ketron said recently. “We now protect the purity of the ballot box, and for those who want to cheat through dead people, convicted felons and people living outside their district, it’s not going to happen, because we’re going to make sure that you have a photo ID.
“And for those who can’t afford it, the state of Tennessee is going to pick up the tab so it will pass muster for being constitutional, as it did in Indiana, the first state to pass it.”
The new dates for the presidential primaries were also a product of this year’s legislative session.
The Legislature moved the state’s Democratic and Republican presidential primaries in 2012 to March, heeding demands by the national parties to stop front-loading the primary calendar.
The parties have said they would penalize states by taking away delegates without such action. Four states — Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — have preference on earlier primary or caucus dates. Tennessee’s presidential primary had been the first Tuesday in February.