Voter ID laws get scrutiny

Voter ID laws get scrutiny

December 18th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Tennessee's new voter ID law makes it needlessly difficult for voters to comply with the law and ensure their right to vote. The same can be said of similar laws passed this year by 11 other states - all dominated by Republican-controlled legislatures - and previously passed by six other states controlled by Republicans. That alone has made it blatantly obvious that Republicans are pursuing a national political strategy to suppress the votes of millions of American citizens - especially the elderly, minorities, students and the disabled - who may vote against their party in next year's elections.

These laws should be scrutinized promptly by the Justice Department to gauge their disparate impact on selected groups of citizens in the new year's election cycles. U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has finally gotten that message.

He announced last Tuesday that he has ordered the Justice Department's civil rights division to aggressively review new voting rights laws for potential disparate impact on particular groups of citizens, beginning with the new laws in South Carolina and Texas.

Invoking Voting Rights Act

The attorney general's right to review the laws - and to go to court if necessary to block states from putting them into effect - springs from the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law specifically allows the Justice Department to object to laws that have a disparate impact on minorities and that may deter members of minority groups from voting, even if there is no specific evidence of the intention to discriminate in the law.

That sort of argument is likely to form the substance of a fresh legal debate over the new laws. Tennessee's new voter ID law, for example, obviously will have a discriminatory impact, even though its Republican advocates say they intended no such discrimination when they passed it. Rather, they say the law is intended only to protect against possible voter fraud.

Voter fraud rare

Such fraud, however, is, and historically has been, exceedingly rare. By contrast, hundreds of thousands of Tennessee voters do not now possess state or federally issued photo IDs, and their right to vote is jeopardized. That's partly because until now drivers over 60 years of age have not been required to have their pictures on their renewed driver's licenses, and partly because so many Tennesseans have never obtained a driver's license or a U.S. passport.

The state's new law is not user-friendly - and is seemingly deliberately so - for Tennesseans now in need of a qualified state photo ID. It places onerous rules for securing a voter ID at its driver's license centers that, in fact, are likely to keep long-time registered voters from obtaining the cards.

Barely a third of the state's 95 counties, for example, even have a driver's license center where new state non-driver photo ID cards may be obtained. That means that many elderly, disabled, ill, home-bound or poor voters in need of a photo ID to vote will have trouble getting to such centers.

Some who get there may not be able to stand in line or wait for hours, as is now commonplace, to get a photo ID driver's license. Many others will have given up trying to obtain certified copies of long-misplaced birth certificates and marriage licenses, the latter of which is needed to confirm a name change from the maiden name on a birth certificate to the married name on a Social Security card.

As this newspaper reported two months ago, such a catch stopped 96-year-old Chattanooga resident Dorothy Cooper from receiving a photo ID here in October, even though she had her birth certificate, Social Security card and voter-registration card, among other recommended supporting documents, in hand when she tried to get a photo ID card at a Red Bank driver's license center. It took a second visit, and even then a call by an elected official to speak with a clerk, to secure her voter ID.

Many thousands of voters in Tennessee will encounter similar problems without someone to help them. Many thousands of others just won't bother to try. Other states employ various other tricks to suppress voter registration.

Florida's indefensible tactics

Florida, for example, has added laws that make it a punishable offense for volunteer workers in voter registration drives to fail to submit new registration applications within 48 hours. Another law would shorten the time frame for absentee ballots.

Tennessee officials could prove their good-faith intentions with the new voter ID law by simply buying a photo-ID machine for each of the 95 counties' Election Commissions. These commissions already issue voter registration cards, update voter rolls and precinct voter lists, and administer elections. They could easily verify a previously registered voter's credentials and voting history.

Giving these commissions a photo ID machine and charging them with updating voter registration cards to include photo IDs - and citizenship documentation for new voters, if it really is the point - would be far cheaper than using the state's scattered, inconvenient and badly overloaded driver's license centers. Certainly that would be cheaper than the stated contract costs of outsourcing photo ID work to the county clerks of a handful of the state's largest counties.

A better option

When we asked Gov. Haslam and Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett earlier this year why they would not consider such an option, they gave no logical response. First, they said it would cost too much; then they said they had not calculated the cost. When it was later shown to cost half the amount of the contracts with county clerks, they didn't respond.

In fact, there is no reason why the more convenient Election Commissions in each county, which have traditionally issued voter registration cards, could not handle the task. If the true intent behind the photo ID requirement is legitimate and fair, as Republicans claim, the state should have no problem using an efficient process this is already in place, and that is easier, cheaper, faster and fairer. That it has failed to create a voter-friendly photo-ID system speaks volumes about state Republicans' transparent intent to discriminate.

Attorney General Holder should have no problem proving the discriminatory intent of the voter ID laws as now written. An aggressive investigation should address that, the sooner the better.