published Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

New voter law will suppress legitimate voting

Tennessee voters are more likely to be struck by lightning than to have their vote stolen at the ballot box.

Millions of citizens cast ballots in Tennessee elections; more than 6 million votes have been tallied in the three previous statewide elections in Tennessee alone.

Still, state Election Coordinator Mark Goins told the Chattanooga Times Free Press he can point to only one, possibly two, instances of someone being convicted of impersonating someone else when trying to vote.

One — “possibly two” — cases out of a number far greater than 6 million.

By any measure, Tennessee elections are a success story. Over the years, our electoral process has virtually guaranteed your right to be a voter and have your vote counted.

Few systems of any kind could boast such high rates of success, yet for years Republicans have trumpeted claims of rampant voter fraud.

Though every effort — local or national — to demonstrate widespread fraud at the ballot box has failed to produce evidence that such fraud exists, Republicans persist in such claims for cynical and partisan reasons: The assertion of “voter fraud” is the perfect bogeyman for those who want to enact photo ID laws like the one we’ve seen passed in Tennessee.

The reality is that photo ID laws result in unnecessary costs and disenfranchisement of the elderly, the young, the poor and minorities — individuals who are least likely to have government identification or to be able to afford to get it.

No one wants to see the system abused, but the problem with combating “voter fraud” with photo ID requirements is that these laws exclude and deter people who are otherwise legal voters.

Whether you’re in favor of voter ID laws or opposed, it should be just as disturbing to think someone could abuse the system as it is to think that someone could be excluded from it.

In Chattanooga and elsewhere in Tennessee, we’ve

already seen the real effects of the voter ID law. The plight of Hamilton County’s Mrs. Dorothy Cooper, a 96-year-old African-American woman who has voted without issue for seven decades until the new voter ID law, has received national attention.

Mrs. Cooper’s story directly disproves the Republican argument that all law-abiding voters have a photo ID.

In fact, according to the Department of Safety, there are around 675,000 voting-age Tennesseans — about one in 10 — who are just like Mrs. Cooper and lacking the picture ID now needed to vote.

To be a voter on Election Day, a majority of these citizens must obtain a photo ID from a driver service center.

So why don’t they just get one? Good question. Republicans have volunteered you to pay the bill.

A cost analysis of voter ID implementation costs in other states puts the estimated price tag for Tennessee taxpayers between $8 million and $24 million over the next four years. Republicans have decided to spend limited state resources chasing mythical claims of voter fraud rather than investing tax dollars back into our communities, creating jobs and improving education.

Even with taxpayers subsidizing the program, there are still unnecessary costs and hurdles for those who want to obtain a government-issued voter ID.

First, a whopping 53 of 95 Tennessee counties have no driver’s license center, meaning some rural residents will have to travel as far as 60 miles to get a proper ID — a significant burden for the working poor, the elderly and disabled voters.

Second, news reports from Memphis indicate that some voters have spent as much as four hours waiting in long lines to get an ID — only to be turned away on trivial technicalities, like Mrs. Cooper was, for not having enough documentation.

For some voters, these burdensome barriers to the ballot box will be just enough to rob them of their constitutional right.

In an effort to scuttle the concerns of citizens ranging from preachers to U.S. senators, Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has rolled out a modest effort to educate voters about the new requirements. Haslam’s plan includes asking some county clerks to issue photo IDs, opening up express lanes for ID seekers and running several public service announcements.

As of Oct. 5, the Department of Safety reported to The Tennessean that a mere 214 voter ID cards had been issued.

If the number of issued voter ID cards does not increase dramatically before March’s primary election, it will be impossible for Republicans to whitewash the voter-suppressing effect of this law.

There is a growing movement seeking a full repeal of the voter ID law. We support that action to ensure the voting rights of all Tennesseans.

The debate we should be having is how to encourage more participation in our elections — not less. At the Democratic Party, we are committed to making sure every law-abiding Tennessean who wants to be a voter can be without barriers.

Chip Forrester is the chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party and an executive committee member of the Democratic National Committee. He may be reached by email at chip@tndp.org.

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