Officials on both sides of the debate over the state’s new voter ID law are pointing the blame at each other about who, exactly, is disenfranchising voters.
Liberal advocacy groups like Citizen Action say the lawmakers who agreed to turn away voters who show up at the polls without a government-issued photo identification are at fault.
But a handful of conservative lawmakers and Haslam administration officials speaking to the issue on Capitol Hill Tuesday are blaming those same groups for implying that the General Assembly is taking away some people’s ability to vote.
“Misinformation is a disenfranchisement. If someone reads that they are disenfranchised, they may believe that,” Mark Goins, the state’s coordinator of elections, told the Senate State and Local Government study committee that met to discuss the issue.
One such example, said Goins, was a recent op-ed by Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, who alleged the Legislature is obstructing his 94-year-old mother’s right to vote because she doesn’t have a photo ID. In the editorial that ran last week, Herron tallied the cost of getting proper identification to at least $100, adding up the cost of ordering a birth certificate, the cost of gas getting to and from the DMV to obtain a photo ID and the cost of taking time off work and characterizing it as a “poll tax.”
“For those who are working people and poor people and hurting people … this will make it harder for them to vote,” Herron said after the hearing. “Those who don’t have photo IDs, and there are 675,000 Tennesseans, according to the Department of Safety, that do no have a driver’s license with a photo on it, they might have some other ID, but if I was not a state senator, I would not have any other government-issued ID, and that’s true of most people.”
Goins says anyone over 65 who doesn’t get a photo ID can vote absentee by mail, which is contrary to comments like Herron’s that indicate the state is creating barriers to the ballot box. He said 126,000 registered voters have driver’s licenses without photos, although some of them have other forms of ID they can use.
But absentee voting for some is not fair for all voters, said Mary Mancini, executive director of Citizen Action of Tennessee, a “consumer advocacy” which is asking voters to sign petitions asking the Legislature to repeal the new law.
“Voting is supposed to be a level playing field. It’s the most basic right that we all have,” she said. “As it stands right now, only voters 65 or older could vote, no questions asked, absentee. That’s an exception, and whenever you are making an exception like that, you are unleveling the playing field.”
The issue has become a national one. According to a report by the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, some 5 million people will have a tougher time voting this year as they adapt to new rules.
U.S. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin quizzed Gov. Bill Haslam about the state’s new voter ID law last month by sending him a letter asking how the Volunteer State expects to implement the new law to make sure every voter — including those who are elderly, live in rural areas, are low-income or belong to a minority group — has what he needs at the ballot box.
Haslam’s no-frills response included details about asking county clerks to issue photo IDs, opening up express lanes for ID seekers at the DMV and reaching out to voters.
“Can I absolutely guarantee there will be no lines anywhere and you walk right in? No, I can’t,” Haslam told reporters Tuesday in Nashville after speaking to a monthly luncheon meeting of Republicans.
“But we’re doing everything we can from our standpoint, and again, like I said, everything from extending that to county clerks to make that as easy as possible,” he continued.
Some 30 county clerks have agreed to issue photo IDs, a number Department of Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons told the committee he hopes to expand to at least 50 in the next few years. He also plans to open certain DMV centers on Saturdays beginning in November and running through the March presidential primary.
According to the Department of Safety, any government-issued photo ID can be used at the polls, including:
- Valid or expired Tennessee drivers license with photo.
- Valid or expired out-of-state driver’s license with photo.
- U.S. passport.
- Federal employee ID with photo.
- State employee ID with photo, including IDs issued by state universities.
- U.S. military ID.
- Gun permit card with photo.
College student IDs are not eligible.