Powerful U.S. Senator from Illinois Visits Nashville, Denounces TN’s Voter ID Law

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin said Monday Tennessee’s new photo ID law could disenfranchise voters, especially the poor, elderly, ethnic minorities or those living in rural areas.

Tennessee’s Republican-led Legislature approved a law last spring that would require voters to bring a government-issued photo identification with them to the polls. Democrats argued that the move created a “poll tax” and put an unnecessary burden on voters.

“In a nation that has struggled long and hard to make sure that every American has the right to vote, we cannot allow for new state laws, in any state, that will restrict those Americans who have a legal right to vote from that opportunity. So, we’re going to pursue this further,” said Durbin, assistant Democratic majority leader in the U.S. Senate.

Durbin led a Senate subcommittee hearing last week to review state voting laws and their implications for civil rights. The subcommittee reviewed four new Tennessee laws, including one that changes registration notification requirements and two that tinker with early voting periods.

But Durbin seized on the photo ID law, saying more than 126,000 registered Tennessee voters have driver’s licenses that lack photos and will not be accepted on election day.

“If this is a matter of, I either have to take off work or I go to wait four hours, waiting for a photo ID some place, I think that kinda gets to the point where it creates hardship,” Durbin said.  The photo ID law raises “serious constitutional questions” about the state creating obstacles or a “poll tax” for people who “tend to vote more Democratic,” he said.

Rep. Debra Maggart, the Republican Caucus chairwoman who sponsored the bill, said she believes the GOP-led Legislature took the steps necessary to make sure the law jibes with the Constitution by allowing anyone needing a photo ID to get one for free at the state taxpayer’s expense. All that legal residents need to do to obtain a government-issued photo ID at no charge from the State of Tennessee is sign an affidavit declaring that their purpose for seeking one is to vote and that they are a registered voter without any other state-issued photo identification, according to the law lawmakers approved this year.

“What we have here is a transparent attempt by a Democratic senator from another state trying to use the heavy hand of the federal government to tell Tennesseans what to do,” Maggart said via email.

Meanwhile, Department of Safety officials say they’re reforming driver’s license facilities to ease access and, together with elections officials, informing drivers over 60 of the new law.

The new requirements kick in on Jan. 1 and will be tested in the March primaries.