Tennessee justified in safeguarding ballot box

Tennessee justified in safeguarding ballot box

October 23rd, 2011 in Opinion Columns

For 11 years in a row, identity theft has been the most common consumer complaint reported to the Federal Trade Commission. This fact does not come as a surprise to many in our community.

Most of us probably know someone who has fallen victim to identity theft - a type of crime that can leave victims with excessive credit card and utility bills, trashed credit ratings and legal problems. But did you know that identity thieves can also impersonate voters and cast fraudulent ballots?

Thankfully, our General Assembly passed legislation this year that will make it more difficult for that type of voter fraud to occur in the future. Starting next year, voters in Tennessee elections will be required to show photo identification when they go to the polls to vote.

The benefit is obvious: Requiring photo IDs helps poll workers determine that people who wish to cast ballots are who they say they are.

In modern society, we are asked to provide photo identification to board an airplane, to cash a check, to rent a car, to give blood - and the list goes on and on. The most sacred right we have as Americans should be safeguarded with no less of a standard. No one wants to have his or her vote canceled out by someone who is ineligible to participate in an election.

There is plenty of data that demonstrates strong public support for photo IDs.

Next month, Mississippi residents will participate in a referendum to determine whether photo IDs will be required to vote in that state's elections. In order to get that issue on the ballot, supporters of the ID requirement gathered more than 130,000 signatures. A national poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports earlier this year indicated that 75 percent of the respondents favored photo IDs for voters. Other national polls have shown even stronger support, well over 80 percent.

Those are outstandingly high numbers when you think about them. It is hard to get

three out of every four people (much less eight out of every 10) to agree on anything.

Even though the majority of voters support photo ID requirements, there still are some critics who loudly protest the law - and they have been given a share of attention in the media that is disproportionate to their actual numbers.

I respect their right to protest the law; however, I do not support spreading misinformation.

Some of these critics claim photo IDs aren't necessary because there has been little voter fraud in Tennessee.

I find that statement incredible for a couple of reasons.

There is no way they could know - or anyone could know - how many cases of voter impersonation have gone undetected through the years, because without a photo ID requirement it's very difficult to catch the perpetrators.

The critics' statement also implies that "very little voter fraud" is acceptable in Tennessee elections. I ask Tennessee voters, is there any acceptable level of voter fraud? I believe there is not.

I believe - and I think most Tennesseans believe - that we should have a "zero-tolerance" policy toward all types of voter fraud and take whatever steps we can to combat them.

These critics contend there are many individuals in Tennessee without photo IDs who will be disenfranchised by this new law. What they repeatedly fail to mention is that there are numerous safeguards in the law that ensure eligible voters will not be disenfranchised.

Tennesseans who vote absentee by mail are exempted from the photo ID requirement. So are citizens who are hospitalized or voting from licensed nursing homes or assisted-living facilities. Voters who have religious objections to being photographed may forgo the requirement if they're willing to sign affidavits swearing, under penalty of perjury, that they are who they say they are. Tennesseans who do not have an ID can obtain a photo ID free of charge.

Voters who have photo IDs but forget to bring them to the polls can cast provisional ballots and return to their county election offices within two business days after Election Day to present proper proof of identity.

Our law is similar to Indiana's law, a state where critics filed a lawsuit to challenge the photo ID requirement. The plaintiffs lost that lawsuit because they were not able to find one person who had actually been denied the opportunity to vote because of the voter ID requirement. Not one.

The Division of Elections is working hard to inform Tennesseans about our new law. We've teamed with the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, which has taken steps to make it easier to obtain free photo IDs, as well as the AARP and other groups that are providing answers for their members.

The voter ID requirement will go into effect next year. Now our focus must be informing Tennessee voters about the law and what they need to do to comply with it. Rather than resorting to fear-mongering and spreading misinformation, that's what the law's critics should be doing, too.

Tre Hargett is Tennessee's secretary of state. He can be reached at Tre.Hargett@tn.gov.