Tennessee's Republican state officials, like those in other Republican-controlled states that recently passed strict new laws on voting and voter photo IDs, generally claim that such restrictions are not a problem for most voters. In any case, they say, the restrictions are worthwhile because of the voter fraud they may prevent, regardless of new difficulties they pose to voters and voter-registration drives. But there's a lot of evidence to suggest that patently partisan defense is not true at all.
In Tennessee, the Department of the Secretary of State confirmed to this page Tuesday, approximately 126,000 seniors, including 7,092 in Hamilton County, have a driver's license without a photo-ID. If they go to vote next year without first obtaining a photo-ID driver's license -- or some other narrowly acceptable government-issued photo ID -- they will not be allowed to vote.
Across the nation, a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law has found that approximately 5 million voters will be negatively affected by the newly stringent voter laws, The New York Times reported Monday. Estimates in Texas and South Carolina, for example, suggest that some 800,000 voters in these two states alone will have trouble obtaining acceptable photo ID cards.
These are no small numbers. They vastly outweigh the rare instances of voter fraud of the sort these laws are said to deter. In Hamilton County, for example, voter fraud of any sort "is very rare," says Election Commission Administrator Charlotte Mullis-Morgan. That's generally been the record across the state, and in most states surveyed by the Brennan Center report.
Controversy over the restrictive new voter restrictions has erupted in Tennessee and the other 13 states that passed restrictions on voters this year. Though state officials ignored the criticism at first, the most recent response in Nashville has been somewhat helpful. The Secretary of State's office has asked the court clerks in 30 of Tennessee's 95 counties, including Hamilton and the other three large metro counties, to begin issuing conversions of non-photo ID driver's licenses for seniors to photo-ID licenses.
These counties already issue driver's license renewals. Typically these licenses include photo-ID's, but people over 60 have been allowed to receive licenses without a photo-ID. The new license conversions to add photos are scheduled to be offered here, at the County Courthouse only, beginning next Monday, County Clerk Bill Knowles said Tuesday. They will be free until Mar. 12 next year, and then will be available for the usual state and county renewal fees ($12 total in Hamilton County.)
This service surely will help seniors here and in the other 29 counties. Wait times at the County Clerk's courthouse office are well under the sometimes multi-hour waits at state driver's license centers. But the program won't serve any of Tennessee 32 counties that have neither a driver's license center nor a County Clerk participating in the drivers' license photo-ID conversions, a Safety Department spokesperson affirmed Tuesday. In those counties, elderly and handicapped citizens with an old or lapsed non-photo license still must find a way to get to driver's license center and endure the wait times.
Voters of any age seeking a Tennessee driver's license for the first time, in order to apply for new voter's registration card, will also run into newly stringent demands to prove both their U.S. citizenship and their residency in Tennessee. (Tennessee, Alabama and Kansas passed laws this year to require proof of citizenship or legal residency status to obtain a driver's license -- the only three states to do so.)
Many people do not possess a certified copy of their birth certificate, and many of these are not likely to go to the trouble to obtain one in order to get a driver's license, and then to register to vote. But that's precisely what the partisan Republican authors intended by passing the new anti-voter laws, which include tighter windows and other strictures to reduce absentee and early voting and voter registration drives.
Studies after the 2008 presidential election showed that most newly registered voters -- particularly students, immigrants, minorities, the elderly, the handicapped and the poor -- cast a significant majority of their votes for Democrats. Republicans don't want a rerun of that in 2012. Their solution is not to offer fairer workplace, health-care or tax equity policies, but too restrict voting by Americans who might vote against them. In a tight race nationally, restrictions that affect 5 million votes are significant.
That goes against the American tradition of expanding and protecting citizens' most valuable franchise -- the right to vote. But that's precisely what this Republican strategy -- for all their flag-waving, sham patriotism and protection of "family values" -- aims to do.