Need a Tennessee photo ID to vote? Get ready to wait

Need a Tennessee photo ID to vote? Get ready to wait

September 20th, 2011 by Andy Sher and Ansley Haman in News

Dorothy Melvin, center, gets help from Charline Kilpatrick as she fills out a form to get a new license with her photo on it. Dorothy and Joshua Melvin added photos to their driver's licenses at the Driver Services Center on Monday afternoon as part of the state's new law that requires a photo ID to vote.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

Waiting for a license

State stats say it takes 53 minutes on average for someone to get a driver's license from one of Tennessee's 48 driver service centers.

But those suffering through the process say the ordeal actually can last hours and even require multiple trips.

The difference? Official stats only take into account the time that elapses between a customer entering the building and getting served. They don't include time customers often must spend in line before they actually get inside the service center, let alone the occasional need for coming more than once.

"This is from the time someone pulls a number to be served [meaning they are inside the building]," said Jennifer Donnals, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. "It does not include the wait time before then as there is no accurate way to determine that time."

Long waits have been a problem for years, resisting repeated efforts by at least two governors to solve them. But a spotlight is now on the issue after the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a law this year mandating that all Tennesseans have state or federally issued photo IDs to vote in elections beginning in 2012.

State Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons, who took office in January, said he knows it takes too long to get a license -- let alone the free photo IDs the department is preparing to issue for as many as 126,000 Tennesseans age 60 and over who have driver's licenses with no pictures.

"It's one of our priorities to really focus on really reducing our wait times," Gibbons said, noting the problem was already at the very top of our list as the department carries out Gov. Bill Haslam's orders to all departments to conduct "top to bottom" reviews.

The reviews are aimed at making all operations of state government more efficient and cost effective.

Gibbons said his department is cooperating with Secretary of State Tré Hargett in getting information out to voters about how to get a photo ID. The department also is working to set up "express lines" for voters seeking such IDs, which come at no cost to the voter.

Other plans include moving time-consuming functions such as getting a driver's license reinstated following a DUI or other offenses into a different building.

The department also is working with county clerks -- who already issue driver's license renewals -- to also handle efforts by drivers who have no picture on their licenses when they come in to obtain a new photo license.

"I'm on board with that," said Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles. "I'm a little apprehensive, but I want to do all I can to help the elderly and those who don't have a driver license with a photo on them.

"I just hope we're not overwhelmed. We'll do our best," he added.

POLL: Are wait times for driver's licenses too long?

Communication problems

Based on a visit Monday to the department's full-service driver service center on Cherokee Boulevard in Chattanooga, Nashville officials could stand to do some more communicating with their own employees.

Local Democratic activist Charline Kilpatrick and her son Korlon Kilpatrick drove friends Dorothy and Joshua Melvin to the center so they could add photos to their drivers' licenses. After about a 20-minute wait, Dorothy Melvin approached the window. Kilpatrick, who previously had helped her son and others attempt to obtain a photo ID, joined her.

The clerk asked for Melvin's birth certificate, telling her, "You have to prove you are a citizen of the United States."

Dorothy Melvin was just there to add a free photo to her driver's license so she could vote and that she had a state letter saying that was all she'd need, according to Charline Kilpatrick.

Melvin also said she was told she'd have to pay an $8 fee, but Charline Kilpatrick said that, under guidelines, no fee is required.

The clerk placed a call to Nashville to inquire about whether a birth certificate was needed to get a photo ID -- it was not -- and then requested only Melvin's voter registration card, which she presented. The clerk gave each of the Melvins a number and a form to fill out. No fee was charged.

"If I hadn't been here with them today, they may well have paid," Charline Kilpatrick said.

The Kilpatricks said they recently encountered problems twice in the same day when they tried to get state-issued photo IDs not connected with the driver's license. Each time, Korlon Kilpatrick said, they were told they needed a different set of documents and would have to pay different prices. First it was $12.50; then it was $9.50.

The wait time that day was two hours and probably would have been longer, but "so many people left out of frustration," Korlon Kilpatrick said. He said they ended up paying $9.50.

After that, his mother, who has retired from the Electric Power Board, decided to begin helping friends, church members and neighbors get photo IDs.

"Everybody doesn't have a passport," she said, citing a requirement necessary for people without a driver's license. "Some people may have never driven."

For the Melvins, the process took about 45 minutes on Monday. However, the Driver Services Center was operating only its express services -- so no written exams or road tests -- due to a worker shortage so there were fewer people needing help and lines were shorter.

According to state figures, the longest official waits for a license is at the Driver Services Center in Johnson City, where the average is 86.78 minutes. The center in Cleveland ranked No. 7 with the average wait pegged at 76.68 minutes.

Ron Ramsey

Security versus inconvenience

But wait times -- whether short or long -- are not part of the general controversy surrounding the photo ID rule voted in by the state legislature. Republicans who pushed the law said it is necessary to combat voter fraud, but Democrats, including state Rep. Tommie Brown and Rep. Joanne Favors, both D-Chattanooga, question whether it constitutes an effort to disenfranchise certain voters such as the elderly, poor and minorities.

"I still don't see what this controversy is going to be," said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the state Senate speaker. "We're going to make sure that everybody who needs a voter photo ID will have a photo ID.

"In today's world, it's just amazing to me that in order to cash a check, in order to get on an airplane -- just about anything -- you need a photo ID," said the Blountsville Republican. Yet the most sacred thing we have in our country -- making sure you are who you say are when you vote -- people question whether we should be able to do that."

Informed that the official average wait time at the state's service center in Blountsville was 86.46 minutes, Ramsey appeared surprised.

"Waiting to get their driver license? Obviously we're going to take any obstacle out of the way we can," Ramsey said, but noted "85 percent of the people of Tennessee agree with us on that issue [photo voter requirements]. It's the right thing to do."

House Democratic Leader Mike Turner, from Old Hickory, countered that "there was no need to do what we did. We have no terrorists voting in Tennessee."

Voter fraud in Tennessee "is very low," said Turner, who went on to charge that Republicans are "disenfranchising voters. They can say what they want to. Any other assessment is not honest."

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