Education pushed on Tennessee voter ID law

Education pushed on Tennessee voter ID law

November 1st, 2011 by Andy Sher in News

Chip Forrester, Chairman of Tennessee Democratic Party.

Photo-voting events

  • In Hamilton County, officials will hold a town hall meeting to field voters' questions about the new law requiring government-issued photo ID to vote. The meeting is today from 10-11 a.m. at the county Election Commission's headquarters at 700 River Terminal Road.

  • Bradley County officials will an open forum today from 10 a.m. to noon at the Courthouse Annex, Suite 102, 155 Broad St. NW in Cleveland, Tenn.

Blake Fontenay, a spokesman for the Republican Secretary of State

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

POLL: Should voters be required to show a photo ID?

NASHVILLE -- Election officials across Tennessee are conducting outreach programs today to explain a new law requiring photo ID to vote, but state Democrats labeled such steps as "woefully inadequate."

On Monday, state Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester and other Democrats announced the party will begin a yearlong effort to educate as many as 675,000 voters they say risk being relegated to "second-class citizenship -- good enough to pay taxes but not good enough to be a voter."

"Over the next year we're going to send a clear message to the citizens of this state: We want you to be a voter," Forrester said.

He cited a study that shows Tennessee already ranks 49th in terms of eligible voters who actually vote.

Democratic lawmakers said they will seek repeal of the GOP-pushed photo ID law next year. It goes into effect on Jan. 1.

Blake Fontenay, a spokesman for Republican Secretary of State Tré Hargett, took issue with Forrester's charge that the state's efforts are "woefully inadequate."

"Those remarks are a slap in the face and extremely disappointing in light of the efforts that the AARP, election officials and other groups across the state have made to help inform people about the new law," he said. "We applaud those who are trying to educate voters rather than scaring them."

Officials at all 95 county election commissions are hosting town halls or similar forums across the state today in an effort to educate voters about the new law and how to get a photo ID.

Democrats' own efforts begin Saturday and coincide with the Department of Safety's plans to start opening 19 driver services centers on Saturdays to provide free photo IDs to an estimated 126,000 Tennesseans 18 and older who don't have photo driver's licenses but are registered to vote. The centers will be open on the first Saturday of each month through early next year.

The law requires people who are already registered to vote to show a state or federally issued ID in order to cast a ballot. Expired IDs will be accepted. But state college IDs will not be accepted. Elderly voters can still vote absentee.

Democrats argue about 675,000 Tennesseans could be affected by the law. The figure includes everyone over 18 counted in the 2010 U.S. census who is not registered to vote as well as the 126,000 registered voters who have driver's licenses without photos.

Republican officials have taken issue with the figures. Fontenay said "consistently quoting inaccurate information doesn't help anyone get a photo ID. It's disingenuous at best and disenfranchisement at worst."

A sponsor of the new law, state Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, said the census figures cited by Democrats include legal and illegal residents as well as convicted felons.

Republicans say the new law is necessary to combat voter fraud while Democrats say it is intended to discourage the elderly, the poor, minorities and students from voting.

The new law has generated some embarrassing moments for supporters. In Chattanooga, 96-year-old Dorothy Parker was initially denied a free state-issued ID because, while she had a birth certificate, she did not have a marriage certificate reflecting her name change.

The Safety Department issued her an ID on a second try, but Democrats say Parker's situation illustrates the barriers being erected by the law.

State Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons announced Monday that, as of Oct. 24, the department had issued 2,385 forms of photo identification for voting purposes since the new law went into effect on July 1. The IDs are being issued free to those who certify they need it to vote.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.