NASHVILLE - A Chattanooga lawmaker says she is helping organize a community effort to help elderly, poor and minorities meet requirements of a new Tennessee law mandating voters have government-issued photo identification before casting ballots in 2012 elections.
State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said she, other elected officials, churches, elected officials, fraternal, community, civic and professional organizations have formed the Tennessee Voters Assistance Coalition.
It is aimed at helping people get proper photo ID by giving them assistance in obtaining documents like birth certificates and providing transportation if necessary to state-operated Driver Services Centers in Hamilton County.
"It's a real headache and many of the citizens here, as you know, they won't have transportation and won't be able to stand in lengthy lines waiting to get a photo," she said. "So we're going to have to assist them in that process rather than waiting until the campaign."
Calling Tennessee's law "part of the Republican national agenda," Favors said it is "the most drastic law since poll taxes and written examinations were prerequisites for voting in many Southern states."
The group expects to hold its first meeting this Thursday and the public is invited.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the law earlier this year. When it goes into effect Jan. 1, it will be one of the seven strictest photo-voter laws in the nation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan group.
Tennessee Republicans say the move is not about voter suppression but prevention of voter fraud.
Photo-ID Voter Help
A variety of groups and agencies are providing information to those interested in the state's new law requiring photo identification to vote. They include:
• The Tennessee Voters Assistance Coalition, which hopes to assist Hamilton County voters deal with new photo identification requirements. The group is holding its first meeting at Carver Recreation Center, 600 North Orchard Knob Ave., this Thursday, from 6 to 8 p.m. To register, call 1-800-449-8366 ext. 12702 or 624-5088.
• The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security has created the following website about the new law's requirements and how to obtain official state IDs: www.tn.gov/safety/photoids.shtml
• Tennessee Secretary of State news release: http://tnsos.org/Press/story.php?item=289
"I can assure everyone it's not a Republican conspiracy to keep people from voting," said state House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville. "We want people to vote but we want to make sure it's a legal vote."
She noted that Republican Secretary of State Tré Hargett recently announced plans that his office, which oversees elections, will work with the AARP and League of Women Voters to help inform voters.
"I believe this new requirement is a common sense step that will increase public confidence in our elections," Hargett recently said. "Requiring photo IDs will decrease the chances that an eligible voter can be impersonated by someone else at the polls."
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has directed the Department of Safety to ease efforts by would-be voters to obtain appropriate photo ID at the state's 49 Driver Services Centers.
The department is providing free IDs to Tennesseans who say they need it to vote and have a birth certificate or documentation showing they are U.S. citizens and other records like bills establishing they are Tennessee residents.
Favors said more work is necessary.
"The Secretary of State is providing public education because he is aware of case law rulings in states that have been in litigation regarding this law," she said. "Public education will certainly be helpful, but TVAC will go beyond this by providing eligible voters with assistance in obtaining transportation, obtaining proof of birth" and other areas.
Pastor E. Jonathan Thomas Jr. of Chattanooga's World Restoration Center Church, who is among those joining with Favors, agreed.
"There are people who have died for the right to vote," he said, recalling civil rights-era struggles by black Americans. "There were people beaten fighting for the right to vote. ... We don't want them to feel now that in their senior years this right is being taken away from them. This is the United States of America."
He said he worries some have pushed such legislation to target "say like the seniors especially in African-American communities and possibly some Hispanic [communities]."
The issue of photo-voter laws, including Tennessee's, came up Thursday in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's Civil Rights Subcommittee. Advocates and critics of the law sparred. The chairman of the panel, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has now written Haslam a letter voicing concerns about Tennessee's law.
"While the new law requires identification cards to be provided free of charge, it does not provide resources to increase the hours of operation or expand the number of locations," Durbin said.
Noting the Safety Department operates driver services centers in just a third of Tennessee's 95 counties, Durbin said "bureau offices in urban areas are either understaffed or nonexistent. As a result, minority, senior, young, disabled and low-income residents in these urban areas have to surmount a cumbersome bureacratic burden to obtain a photo ID card."
Haslam spokesman David Smith said the governor has not yet received the letter. He referred additional questions to the Safety Department.
Safety spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said the department is taking several steps to smooth the process but acknowledged the department already faces a "challenge" in terms of wait times for people seeking driver licenses.
But the department is creating "express" lines for those simply seeking a photo ID and not a license, she said.
Officials also are looking at using direct mail to contact drivers who have no photo on their license, which is allowed under existing law for those over age 60, she said. That's because a driver's license with no photo won't be accepted at polling places in the future.
The state election coordinator also plans to coordinate outreach efforts groups like AARP and the League of Women Voters.
Maggart said government-issued photo ID is required for many things already, noting, "you've got to get photo ID to get public housing ... Social Security benefits."
She said she also welcomed efforts by Favors and others.