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State: New Voter ID Law Proving a Success

Tennessee’s 2011 law requiring voters to show photo identification before casting a ballot had little apparent statistical effect on citizen access to the polls in the general election, records from the Secretary of State’s Office show.

Of the 2.45 million votes cast during the election, 674 provisional ballots related to the new photo ID law were filled out. Of that total, 178 voters returned with proper photo identification and had their ballots counted, according to records.

The new law states that voters who come to the polls without a photo ID may still vote using a provisional ballot. Voters can then return to the polls within two days with a valid ID, such as a driver’s license, and their vote will be counted.

“It’s not even 1 percent of the vote,” Secretary of State spokesman Blake Fontenay said.

The share of voters who did not have their provisional ballot counted because they lacked photo ID comes to roughly .02 percent of all votes cast.

The Nov. 6 election was the broadest test to date of the voter ID law, and lawmakers who supported it say it is proving a success.

“From the moment this law was introduced opponents have been screaming that the sky was falling in ways that would shame Chicken Little,” Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said in a statement. “The numbers have shown otherwise. Photo ID provides voter protection, and now we have proof.”

View county breakdown in a larger map

Shelby County had the most voters casting provisional ballots due to the voter ID law, with 134 cast. Records show 15 of those voters returned with the required identification. Davidson County came in second with 41 voters casting provisional ballots.

“When I see these numbers and then open the paper and see obvious examples of voter fraud in Philadelphia and Cleveland, I rest comfortably knowing that Tennessee has done the right thing in protecting the franchise,” Ramsey said. “What these numbers reveal is that the only thing Tennessee’s voter ID law suppresses is voter fraud.”

When the Republican-controlled Tennessee Legislature passed the photo ID bill, opponents argued the measure was not designed to protect voter integrity, but rather was a deliberate move to discourage groups that tend to vote Democratic, such as the elderly and minority voters.

They say the real takeaway from the recent election is not that the vast majority appear unaffected by the voter ID law, but that potentially hundreds of otherwise eligible voters may have been turned away.

“Those numbers, they may seem low to you, but they’re not,” said Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a voter advocacy group.“That’s a good chunk of people who don’t have a voter ID.”

Mancini has opposed Tennessee’s voter ID laws. This week, for example, she said that the Davidson County Election Commission “utterly failed,” citing hundreds of voters experiencing problems at the polls on Election Day, including not being able to access provisional ballots.

“If one voter is kept from casting their vote because of this law then it’s one vote too many,” she said. “The other thing is that we’ll never really know many people showed up at their polling place, saw the sign about having a photo ID and just left.”

The Secretary of State’s Office maintains there were few problems at the polls, and that there’s another side to those arguments.

According to Fontenay, “Even one person impersonating a voter is one too many in our eyes. Their argument is that they have no way of knowing how many people might not have had an ID and might have stayed home. Our argument is that we have no way of knowing how many people might have, in the past, cast fraudulent ballots.”

While those are open questions, what seems clear is that public opinion is on the side of photo ID.

A poll conducted before Election Day by the Middle Tennessee State University Survey Group showed that 81 percent of Tennesseans approve of the law requiring people to show a photo ID before voting.

Tennessee is not alone in the debate over requiring an ID to vote.

Ten states in addition to Tennessee require a photo ID to vote. Twenty states, such as Massachusetts, California, Nevada and West Virginia, do not require some kind of identification to vote.

In all, 30 states have laws requiring voters to show ID at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And that number could rise, according to the NCSL, because a total of 33 states have passed voter ID laws.

Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are among them, but those measures are tied up in court battles or, in the case of Mississippi, require both legislative approval and federal sign-off via the Voting Rights Act.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.