published Monday, April 18th, 2011

Voter photo ID law flawed

The Republican dominated Tennessee House approved a measure late last week that would require Tennessee voters to produce photo identification before they could cast a ballot. It is a bad bill. So is the Senate version of similar legislation passed in February. There are small differences in the House and Senate bills, but knowledgeable observers say they should be reconciled quickly. The final bill will then go to Gov. Bill Haslam. He should refuse to sign the legislation into law.

There’s ample reason for the governor to reject the bill. The legislation to require photo ID from voters fails to meet either state or federal constitutional muster. Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper issued an opinion saying that without a provision to supply voters with free ID cards, the measure “unduly burdens the right to vote,” and would constitute an unconstitutional poll tax. The soundly reasoned opinion was delivered before the House vote. It didn’t matter. The highly partisan House voted 57-35 to approve the measure, anyway.

Moreover, even though Cooper’s opinion offered a way to make the bill more acceptable from a constitutional standpoint — state-issued free ID cards — the House rejected that option as well. Various Democratic amendments to the bill that would have provided free IDs to those who can’t afford them were beaten back. That’s hardly a surprise. The GOP doesn’t like to admit it, but broad-based voter ID bills perfectly suit the party’s agenda.

Requiring a photo ID card at the polls is an exclusionary act that restricts the right to vote. It strikes most directly at the poor, at the elderly and at minorities who are traditional Democratic constituencies, and who are more likely than most to have difficulty obtaining the required ID. That’s especially so for some older voters who no longer drive and have no driver’s license. Other acceptable forms of ID often require considerable time and expense to obtain, effectively making it difficult or impossible for those who want to vote to meet the requirements to do so.

It might not be called the same, but a requirement for photo IDs that disenfranchise would-be voters is in reality another form of the justly reviled poll tax. Historically, a poll tax was employed to keep the poor or those expected to vote against the political establishment from casting a ballot.

Members of the GOP majority, of course, don’t mention any of that. They simply claim that a photo ID will ensure ballot integrity and reduce voter fraud. That might be true if there was rampant voter fraud. That’s not the case. Indeed, reports of such fraud are rare. Problems with voting usually involve another part of the process — tracking and counting the ballots. The photo ID law doesn’t address that.

The GOP majority in the General Assembly can say what it will, but it can’t change the truth. The voter ID bill, if passed into law, is unfair, politically self-serving and constitutionally dubious. It discourages rather than encourages participation in the democratic process. As such, it should be rejected. If Gov. Haslam won’t do it, the courts, thank goodness, seem ready to do so.

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