Hamilton County Commissioner Fred Skillern jokes on rolling back voting rights

Hamilton County Commissioner Fred Skillern jokes on rolling back voting rights

December 8th, 2011 by Ansley Haman in News

Commissioner Fred Skillern speaks during a Hamilton County Commission meeting in this file photo.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Four white men enter an elevator ...

Disputed is whether what took place inside constituted a joke.

Commissioner Fred Skillern insists it did.

"I said, 'Why don't we go back to the Constitution when the only voters were white male property owners?'" he said when reached by phone.

But two others present didn't agree.

Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith said the statement left him speechless.

Party volunteer Phil Phillips said he was surprised to hear something like that from a county commissioner.

County Clerk Bill Knowles declined comment.

The four got into the County Courthouse elevator together after Wednesday's commission meeting.

During the meeting, commissioners had voted 7-2 against asking the Tennessee General Assembly to amend or repeal the voter ID law passed earlier this year. Phillips, a 56-year-old Harrison resident, addressed commissioners during the public comment period. He said the requirements are cumbersome and affect a range of registered voters, regardless of party affiliation.

The Republican-controlled state Legislature earlier this year passed the voter ID law, which they sold as a deterrent for voter fraud. The law requires that voters present certain types of qualified state IDs and provides free ones for voting purposes for those who don't already have them and can't afford them.

Democrats have criticized the move as an effort to disenfranchise voters, particularly those more likely to vote Democrat.

The requirement goes into effect next month.

While in the elevator, Phillips offered Skillern a copy of the state's requirements for getting a qualified photo ID.

Skillern declined.

"I was kidding Paul Smith about it," Skillern said of the voter ID discussion when reached by phone after the meeting.

Smith, whom he's known for decades, began the joking, Skillern said.

Skillern, a Republican, said Smith told him that he and other Democrats were "just down here creating a little turmoil for you."

Smith said he didn't use the word "turmoil," recalling that he said the citizens "stirred the pot some today" with their public opposition to the Voter ID law.

Either way, Skillern responded with his statement about white male property owners.

Phillips said Skillern's statement was "seemingly overstated" and took him aback.

"It was kind of like guys stand around locker rooms and tell dirty jokes," he said. "It shocked me that he would say that in front of someone he just met 10 seconds ago."

Skillern said Phillips and Smith took his statement out of context. Skillern supports voting rights for all law-abiding U.S. citizens, regardless of skin color or sex, he said.

"We just go back and forth with each other all the time," Skillern said of Smith.

Skillern said he was making the point that the Constitution has been amended and voting rights laws have changed a number of times throughout U.S. history. "They're acting like it's never been changed before," he said.

County commissioners don't have the authority to change state law, and Skillern said he wouldn't support a change even if they did.

"The country's changed," he said. "We've never had as many people in this country who aren't citizens."

Commissioners Greg Beck and Warren Mackey, the body's two Democrats, both supported asking the state to change the law or at least delay its implementation.

All seven Republican commissioners voted against the measure.

More than 7,000 registered voters in Hamilton County held non-photo drivers licenses as of October. Tennessee is the only state in the country that allows those 60 and older to remove their photos from their licenses.

"What they're doing is universal," Beck said of the Legislature. "It's affecting all people, black people, white people, Republicans, Democrats, Tea Party and anybody else already holding a voter registration card. Now they're making them go through some trouble to vote while they're making it easier to vote in Iraq."

He said state leaders have an ulterior political motive for the new photo ID requirement.

"You don't really expect people to follow what you say, but you've got to bring it to their attention anyway," Beck said. "Let the record show that Commissioner Mackey and I tried to help 7,000 people who are going to be left out of the process. It takes more than two guys to change that juggernaut up there."