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Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Voter ID Act

Press Release from the Tennessee Supreme Court, Oct. 17, 2013;

Ruling on constitutional challenges to the state’s Voter Identification Act by the City of Memphis and two Shelby County voters, the Tennessee Supreme Court has unanimously declined to overturn the Act.

The Act, which was passed in 2011, requires voters to present government-issued photographic identification in order to cast a ballot in state or federal elections. As originally written, the Act authorized several acceptable forms of identification, one of which was a valid photographic identification card issued by an entity of the State of Tennessee.

In response to the new law, the City of Memphis Public Library began issuing photographic identification cards to its patrons. Shelby County residents Daphne Turner-Golden and Sullistine Bell attempted to vote in the August 2012 primary using their library cards but were turned away by election officials.

Prior to the 2012 general election, Turner-Golden and Bell, along with the City of Memphis, filed suit, arguing that the photographic identification requirement violated state constitutional protections and that the City of Memphis library cards were valid identification.

The trial court denied relief on all counts. The Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that the library cards were acceptable identification under the Act, but also concluding that the photographic identification requirement was constitutional.

Because early voting for the 2012 general election was underway, the Court of Appeals ordered election officials to accept cards from the Memphis Public Library. The Supreme Court granted review in November of 2012 and ordered election officials to continue to accept cards from the Memphis Public Library during the general election.

On April 23, the General Assembly amended the Voter Identification Act so that cards issued by municipal libraries were specifically excluded as valid identification. Because of the April 2013 amendments, the Supreme Court first ruled that all issues pertaining to the validity of the Memphis Public Library cards were moot.

In addition, the Court ruled that the individual plaintiffs, Turner-Golden and Bell, had legal standing to challenge the Act, but the City of Memphis, which obviously did not have a vote, did not.

Finally, the Court held that the version of the Act in effect at the time of the 2012 primary election met constitutional standards, concluding that the legislature has the prerogative to enact laws guarding against the potential risk of voter fraud and determining that the additional requirements placed on voters were not so severe as to violate protections set out in the Tennessee Constitution.

Guv Inks Tighter Voter ID Provisions

Library cards and other types of county-or-city-issued photo ID cards are no longer enough to cast a ballot in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam has signed a General Assembly measure outlawing their use at polling places.

The bill, sponsored by Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron, was an initially more extensive overhaul of the state’s existing voter ID law.

Most notably, it aimed to add college ID cards — both for students and staff — to the list of acceptable forms of identification.

That effort drew skepticism from some other Senate Republicans, but Ketron’s argument that the changes would make the law more “consistent” eventually won out in the upper chamber. The Senate passed the legislation 21-8. Four Republicans voted “no.” They were Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet, Mike Bell of Riceville, Stacey Campfield of Knoxville and Jim Summerville of Dickson.

However, Ketron’s reasoning fell on deaf GOP ears in the House.

Sponsor Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, readily accepted an amendment from House Local Government Committee Chair Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, that stripped the college ID provision. The language nixing library cards stayed.

Hill told members of the House during floor debate on the measure back in March that his committee removed college IDs because they felt the cards were “too easy to duplicate, they’re too easy to access, too easy to acquire.”

“Some of them do not even have expiration dates on on them, and that poses a danger and a hazard to the voting process,” Hill said.

While discussion in the Senate focuses almost entirely on the college ID issue, some lawmakers in the House were equally vocal in their concern regarding the move to ban the use of library cards on election day.

Chief among them were Democrats from Memphis who said the legislation as a move to overrule a state Supreme Court decision allowing library cards to be used in that city.

Johnnie Turner didn’t mince words, calling the proposed changes “a form of voter suppression,” and chiding House Republicans for meddling in local affairs.

“Locals have voted for, it has been approved by the courts,” Turner said. “Speaker after speaker after speaker will say, ‘We don’t want the federal government telling us what to do.’ And yet, on the state level, we’re doing the same thing.”

Antonio Parkinson, also a Memphis Democrat, said he felt he had been “hoodwinked” and “bamboozled” by Republicans. He accused GOP lawmakers of focusing attention on the more contentious issue of college IDs to draw scrutiny away from their real objective to nullify the decision of the state’s courts.

Going heavy on the sports metaphors, Parkinson said “the end run play was ran and you scored a touchdown, scored the final dunk and now you’re on the House floor with this bill.”

“The point of the matter was simply this,” Parkinson continued. “To run interference of a decision that was to be made by the Tennessee Supreme Court in regards to library cards that were being proposed to be used by the city of Memphis.”

The House passed the bill, largely along party lines, by a vote of 65-30 and the Senate subsequently concurred with the House version, dropping the college ID language with little discussion on the floor.

Memphis Library Cards OK for Voter ID, Court Finds

Cards issued by the Memphis Public Library are acceptable identification for voting purposes, the state Court of Appeals determined in a ruling today that also upheld Tennessee’s photo ID law.

The 18-page opinion was a partial victory for the city, which had pushed to have the new law declared unconstitutional but, if it was upheld, to force election officials to accept the library cards, which include a photo.

The court determined that the city of Memphis qualifies as “a branch, department, agency or entity of this state,” the standard written into law in 2011 by the Legislature. Lawmakers said voters could cast ballots using photo IDs issued by such entities, or by other states or the federal government.

The city in its argument for finding the law unconstitutional had said it imposed undue costs on voters and violated the equal protection clause since voters casting mail-in ballots are not required to show photo ID.

The court dismissed those assertions.

The requirement that prospective voters present photographic identification to vote in person is not an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote under the Tennessee Constitution.

More from the decision:

In absentee voting, the voter does not appear before an election official and, therefore, cannot present photographic identification.

Such a requirement in the context of absentee voting would be nonsensical. We hold that requiring in-person voters to provide photographic identification while not requiring absentee voters to do so does not violate Article XI, Sec. 8 of the Tennessee Constitution.

Rep. Debra Maggart, who sponsored the photo ID law, criticized the decision.

“While I am encouraged our law was ruled constitutional, the fact the Court decided to add to it is disappointing,” Maggart, R-Hendersonville, said in a statement. “Not only has the Court gone beyond the clear intent of the law by allowing library cards, it has also created an exception for the city of Memphis that falls below the standard for the rest of Tennessee. This is the definition of ‘legislating from the bench’ and, frankly, is unacceptable.”

Maggart won’t be around to push back against the court with any legislation after being defeated in the August primary by newcomer Courtney Rogers.

Two GOP lawmakers who will be, and will wield far-reaching power to shape any such legislation, responded to the ruling.

“I might not have ruled that way, but they are the court. They are the law of the land,” House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said in an interview with TNReport. Harwell said she would need to review the court’s decision before commenting further but that she would not be surprised if the Legislature took action.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said the court had not properly interpreted the will of the Legislature.

“While allowing library cards clearly violates the legislative intent of this law, the court rightly affirmed the law’s constitutionality,” Ramsey, R-Blountville, said in a statement.

Tennessee Citizen Action, a left-leaning advocacy group that has opposed the law, cheered the portion of the ruling allowing for library cards.

“It should send a clear message to the Tennessee State Legislature that their attempts last session to limit allowable IDs to only a handful was both restrictive and excessive,” Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, said in a statement.

Most Tennesseans support the law, according to a Middle Tennessee State University poll taken earlier this year.

The state’s photo ID law is among the strictest in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eleven states require photo identification at the polls. In six others, photo ID laws are being litigated or still require approval from the Justice Department.

Nineteen states require nonphoto identification at the polls, according to the NCSL.