NASHVILLE — The state Senate voted along largely partisan lines Monday to require that Tennessee voters show a driver's license or other government-issued photo identification before casting a ballot.
All 20 Republicans and one Democrat voted for the legislation while the other 11 Democrats present voted no. The only Democrat voting with Republicans was Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville.
The measure has yet to begin moving in the House.
Senate debate was sometimes heated, with the bill's sponsor, Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, arguing it is necessary to "protect the purity of the ballot box" against fraud.
He said about 12,000 felons recently have been purged from voter rolls and that as many as 2,370 voted in 2006 and 2008 elections, despite being ineligible.
Democrats countered that the bill's provisions would prove burdensome to many of the 500,000 adult Tennesseans -- many of them poor, elderly or handicapped — who have no state driver's license.
"It is a modern-day poll tax, ladies and gentlemen, for these poor people who have to travel to another county to pay a fee in order to have an ID that will let you vote," said Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden.
He noted that driver's license offices are in only about one-third of Tennessee counties.
Ketron's bill requires that voters present certain types of government-issued photo ID such as a driver's license, passport or military ID to vote. Eight states, including Georgia, have similar laws, he said.
Currently, Tennessee voters can present a voter registration card or a Social Security card. Both have a voter's signature, but neither has a photo.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, unsuccessfully sought to require the state to provide a free government photo ID for seniors over 65.
Republicans tabled Berke's amendment as well as several from Herron, including one allowing elderly voters to present Medicare cards as their ID.
Ketron said his bill has protections for the poor with a provision that allows them to sign an affidavit swearing they are indigent and cannot afford a photo ID such as a driver's license.
He said his proposal is legal under a U.S. Supreme Court decision on photo ID in Indiana. He said the Supreme Court said the "overall burden is minimal" and "justified" in light of the goal to guard against election fraud.
Democrats said the Indiana law had provisions providing free photo IDs to the poor. Ketron said Tennessee cannot afford that.
Similar legislation has passed the Senate in recent years but failed in the House. The House sponsor of the current bill, Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, said that, given Republicans' current 64-34-1 majority in the chamber, passage looks good.
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, ...