NASHVILLE — Tennessee Secretary of State Tré Hargett's office spent more than $42,000 this month to send letters cautioning 118,268 older Tennessee voters that they must have government-issued photo identification to vote in the March 6 primary.
"Dear Voter," Hargett says in letters mailed out as early voting in presidential primaries began Feb. 15. "The Tennessee General Assembly has adopted a new law regarding identification needed to vote beginning with the 2012 election cycle.
"When you vote in person, either during early voting or on Election Day, you must present identification which contains your name and photo," wrote Hargett, a Republican who backed the law. "To be valid, this photo ID must have been issued by a state or federal government."
The letters were mailed to voters 60 and over who under another Tennessee law have not been required to have photos on their driver licenses.
In an email response to questions posed by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Hargett spokesman Blake Fontenay said postage for the letters cost the Secretary of State's office $42,480.09.
"We don't have the production cost yet because we haven't yet received a bill," Fontenay said.
When the Republican-backed bill passed the legislature last year, it wasn't supposed to cost taxpayers much of anything, according to a fiscal note prepared by legislative analysts.
"The secretary of state will not require additional resources to implement the photographic identification requirement," the memo said.
State Election Coordinator Mark Goins said the purpose of the mailing was to inform potential voters of the new requirement and also tell them that if they are unable to get appropriate state or federal ID, there are alternatives including expired driver licenses and government employee photo ID.
Moreover, Goins noted, the letter points out that voters 65 and over can cast absentee ballots without the required photo voter ID. He said many elderly voters didn't know they can vote absentee.
Earlier Wednesday, groups organized by Tennessee Citizen Action, a grass-roots organization that fought the new law, announced in a news conference that they have signatures from 6,000 Tennesseans who want the photo voter ID law overturned.
They charged that thousands of Tennesseans, many of them elderly, poor or disabled, risk being disenfranchised by the new law which critics contend is part of a national effort by Republicans.
They read a letter from 96-year-old Dorothy Cooper, of Chattanooga, whose initial effort to obtain a free photo ID from a Hamilton County driver services station failed because her birth certificate listed her maiden name and didn't match her current name.
Cooper had outlived two husbands. Cooper, whose case generated national headlines, was eventually given a free photo ID.
"I understand there may be some extreme cases out there," Goins said. "But the key to it is they did get a photo ID, they will be allowed to vote. Individuals who've contacted our office, they've been able to get a photo ID."
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, ...