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Voter ID Opponents Shift Focus to Education, Rallying Democratic Voters

Liberal critics of Tennessee’s voter identification requirements passed in 2011 by the state Legislature say they’re presently focused more on education, outreach and fanning outrage in the court of public opinion than a direct legal challenge.

Clearly, litigation-focused groups like the American Civil Liberties Union still despise the new law, which requires voters to show a form of government-issued photo ID in order to cast their ballot, says Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee ACLU.

But plans for a lawsuit are on the back burner, she says.

“No matter what, this law exists, and we have to figure out how those individuals who want to vote can get the documentation to get the free voter ID if they don’t have the money or the resources to pay for a photo ID,” she said after a town hall meeting on voter suppression hosted by the United Steelworkers at the Fithteenth Avenue Baptist Church in Nashville Thursday.

Weinberg has said the ACLU has for months been trying to decide whether to file a lawsuit. But with elections drawing ever nearer, she and the largely Democratic leaders are trying to rally voters who might run into problem, particularly in black communities, saying it’s imperative voters get the tools they need to adhere to the law before it’s too late.

“We need to remind people how critical this is,” said Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, who sat on the panel and made a point to say the new law came at the hands of Republicans. “People are trying to take over our country that are not looking out for the best interest of our children and our grandchildren. We need to stop them, we need to stop them now.”

The bill in 2011 passed easily in both chambers largely along partisan lines. The measure passed 57-35 in the House with one Democrat voting in favor, and 18-14 in the Senate without Democrat help, although an earlier version of the bill had the aid of a Senate Democrat.

According to a poll earlier this year by Middle Tennessee State University, four out of five Tennesseans support the law, which requires voters bring a state- or federal government-issued ID with them in order to vote.

There is already one lawsuit trickling through the judicial system, the case of former four-term congressman Lincoln Davis. Davis alleges his voting rights were violated when he was incorrectly purged from the voter rolls and was denied the right to vote on Super Tuesday.

“Don’t get mad. Get even,” said George Barrett, Davis’ attorney, who sat on the panel during the town hall meeting. Barrett, who is working with the ACLU, said he’s looking for plaintiffs to help him challenge the voter ID law. In the meantime, he has a court hearing in the Davis lawsuit set for later this month.

“If we don’t get up, and we don’t register our neighbors, and we don’t go to the polls, and if we don’t persist, then we deserve what happens to us,” he said.

Lawmakers this year added a requirement that senior drivers have a photo on their driver’s license, which would make that ID usable at the polls. Lawmakers also agreed to reduce the absentee voting age to 60 from 65 and allow former state employees to use their old work badges to prove their identification.

Leaders at the Tuesday meeting say they’re focused on getting out the vote and poll watching to make sure people with valid IDs are not turned away.

“It is our job as activists to harness the momentum to make sure that we don’t stay at home on election day,” said Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the state conference of the NAACP. “We need to make sure we don’t sit this one out.”