NASHVILLE -- Tennessee's secretary of state says his office's Division of Elections, county election officials and others have conducted "unprecedented" efforts to educate voters about a new law requiring a photo ID to vote.
"Our focus, up to this year's elections and beyond, is educating voters about what this law will mean to them," Republican Secretary of State Tré Hargett said in a news release Thursday. "Our voter outreach efforts so far have been unprecedented."
The law, passed this year by the Republican-led General Assembly, takes effect Saturday. Republicans said the law was needed to deter voter fraud, though state officials have been able to point to only one such case.
State Election Coordinator Mark Goins said the law "helps us combat a specific type of election fraud known as voter identity theft. This type of fraud is very difficult to detect, absent safeguards like requiring photo IDs."
Democratic critics are worried it will keep tens of thousands of minority, elderly, young and low-income Tennessee residents from voting in the March 6 presidential primary and other 2012 elections.
"It's a concern to me because I strongly believe that all citizens who are eligible to vote should not have obstacles placed in their way," said Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga. "We're always going to fight for democracy in other countries, and now we're having this happen."
Democrats and other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union Tennessee, have urged lawmakers to amend the law in the upcoming session and have threatened a court challenge.
Just in the over-60 age group, an estimated 126,000 registered voters don't have photos on their driver's licenses in Tennessee. Between July 1 and Dec. 23, 8,718 have been issued new driver's licenses with photos, according to the state Department of Safety. Another 487 people have obtained Safety Department-issued photo IDs.
Hargett spokesman Blake Fontenay downplayed the Safety Department figures.
"It is entirely possible that, through our outreach campaign, many of them have discovered that they have some other valid form of identification," Fontenay said.
Voters may use state or federal photo IDs -- even expired -- such as driver's licenses, military IDs, TVA or other government-issued employee cards, except those issued by local governments or colleges.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said the first real test of the law's impact could come March 6. The Democratic presidential primary won't be a big draw because President Barack Obama faces no challenge, Kyle said.
"If there is a massive problem in March, it will be with Republicans," Kyle said. "By and large, I'd say that [contested GOP primary] is going to drive the vote."
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...