Kennedy: Voter ID law needs revisiting

Kennedy: Voter ID law needs revisiting

May 18th, 2014 by Mark Kennedy in Life Entertainment

She was standing in line in front of me at a voting precinct on Walden's Ridge on May 6. She was older, in her late 60s or early 70s, I'm guessing, and she had three - count them, three - IDs in her hand.

But 1-2-3, nothing worked. Not her photo-less, senior driver's license. Not her Hamilton County photo ID. Not even her Hamilton County voter registration card.

"What good is a voter registration card that doesn't let you vote?" I thought to myself.

"We're so sorry," a poll worker told the woman. "But there's nothing we can do. It's the law."

Finally, the woman walked away, obviously distraught.

About 89 percent of the eligible voters in Hamilton County didn't take time to vote on or before May 6, but some who did were turned away. Since 2012, all Tennessee voters have had to show a state-issued photo ID when voting -- which for 99 percent of us means flashing our driver's license. No problem.

But in what must be the most vivid example ever of the principle of unintended consequences, the voter ID law -- passed to thwart voter fraud -- is causing some Tennessee senior citizens to be effectively disenfranchised. Many do not drive, or they have state-issued driver's licenses without photos. For some of our frail older citizens, hopping into a car to get a new photo ID just for voting is an ordeal.

For anyone who says, "too bad, they should know the law," I'd invite you to watch a member of the Greatest Generation told they can't cast a ballot. Some of these folks, who survived World War II and the Great Depression, are being deprived of the most precious freedom we have as United States citizens.

Not to over-dramatize, but at the moment I witnessed the incident at my precinct, my thoughts drifted to my deceased dad, who fought in Korea. "We fought wars for THIS? So senior citizens could be kept from voting on a technicality?" I thought to myself as the woman walked out the door, her shoulders slumped.

I understand, and even sympathize with, the idea of preventing voter fraud by requiring photo identification. I also think lawmakers could have written in exceptions for senior citizens who have a fistful of otherwise valid identification documents.

In the days after the election, I shared my experience at the polls with a few people at work, but mostly I just stewed.

Enter Marge McNutt, a feisty, 85-year-old Signal Mountain woman who was also turned away from her polling place on May 6 for lack of a photo ID. McNutt wrote a letter to the editor that appears in today's Perspective section. (I should note, she is not the woman at my precinct.)

I called McNutt, and she explained what happened to her.

Leading up to the Hamilton County primaries, McNutt -- who has written books and taught a popular community Bible study on Signal Mountain -- said she reminded all her friends at Alexian Village to vote. But when Election Day came, she was the only person on the Alexian bus bound for the polling place.

"I was the only person at the voting place," she said. "Most of the workers there were older ladies. They said, 'Hey, Marge, how are you?' They knew me personally, most of them did.

"I pulled out my driver's license, which says 'valid without photo,' my Social Security card and my Hamilton County 'permanent' voter registration card. They said, 'Sorry, but you can't vote. You don't have a picture ID.'

"I've voted with these three things for a long time," McNutt said she told the poll workers. "And I'm going to vote right now!"

McNutt's first feelings were visceral -- and, in my view, understandable.

"I didn't know whether to cry, or fuss or hit her with my cane," said McNutt, who ultimately did not vote but resisted the urge to swing her stick.

It might be worth noting that McNutt says she is a conservative Republican, since most of the new voter ID laws have come from that side of the aisle.

Sometimes good governance is about fixing mistakes. If this happens in a light-turnout primary election, imagine how the problem might multiply in a presidential election year. Perhaps lawmakers could create an exception to the photo ID requirement for longtime voters over 70.

If it happens to you, be sure to ask for a provisional ballot, which can be validated if you get a photo ID within 24 hours.

That didn't work out for McNutt, who was offered such a ballot but said, "That's too hard. I'm 85 years old. I don't drive, and I wouldn't know where to go."

A few days later, she did find a friend to take her to get a photo ID at a driver's licence center off the mountain, so she'll be ready next time.

Meanwhile, it's time for lawmakers to revisit this law and do the right thing.

Don't make Marge McNutt bring her cane to Nashville. She's liable to wear somebody out.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.