A botched voter ID system

A botched voter ID system

June 6th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Tennessee's Republican-dominated Legislature was not acting alone this year when it pushed through a law requiring voters to produce government-issued photo identity cards, mainly a driver's license, in order to vote. More than a dozen other states with reinforced Republican-majority legislatures also adopted voter photo-ID requirements, along with other restrictions on voting rights - including new limits on early voting, student residency requirements and stricter rules on provisional voting.

The reason is patently clear. Republicans want to limit voting by possible Democrats in coming elections. The easiest way to do that is to put new restrictions on the right to vote that will affect those who are most likely to be Democrats. Before the 2010 elections, just three states required voter photo IDs; now that number has more than quadrupled.

In most cases, this is patently wrong and morally objectionable, if not unconstitutional. In fact, Tennessee's law, which is among the harshest, probably is unconstitutional.

Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper warned about the legislation's crucial flaw in a legal opinion issued several months ago. He specifically pointed out - as this page also emphasized to Gov. Bill Haslam months ago when he visited here before the House passed the bill - that the Tennessee legislation is more flawed than similar laws in some other states because it makes no provision for citizens to obtain a free and easily available government photo ID. Courts would probably interpret that as a "poll tax" that "unduly burdens" those who cannot obtain a driver's license, Cooper warned.

The attorney general said the legislation appeared to violate the U.S. Constitution's 24th Amendment with respect to federal elections and the Equal Protection Clause with regard to state and local elections. State courts, he said, also would likely find it violated the Tennessee Constitution, which confers protections similar to the Equal Protection Clause.

That hardly mattered to the Republicans driving the bill in the Legislature, and it clearly made no difference to Haslam. He signed the legislation into law without any apparent regard for the poll tax problem - a throwback to the old Southern racial barriers to voting - or the outright hardship to many citizens to comply with law.

Like some other Republican officials questioned by this page, Haslam simply murmured something about provisional voting, and said it was simply too expensive to establish the sort of convenient, free access to government photo-ID cards that states like Georgia have established.

That's baloney, of course. The undue hardship is no small problem. It arises from the fact that barely 40 percent of Tennessee's counties have a driver's license center where people can obtain a photo ID. And even if they get a ride to such a center, they still have to travel to another county and pay for a photo ID.

The state could easily overcome that problem by equipping election commissions in counties without a driver's license center with the photo-ID equipment. Relative to the constitutional issue, the cost would be insignificant. The state cannot claim, moreover, that provisional ballots cure the problem of voters hindered in future elections because of a photo-ID problem. Such ballots generally require a post-election visit by the voter to an election commission office, or entail some other requirement that either works an undue burden on a registered voter, or negates the voter's ballot.

Indeed, if Tennessee now requires a photo ID for voters who do not have driver's licenses, it should provide all election commission offices with photo-ID machines. These offices are already charged with confirming voters' eligibility - by residency and citizenship - before they issue voter registration cards. If their cards are no longer sufficient to confirm a voter's registration, they are now, by definition, incomplete and unsatisfactory.

Tennessee cannot fairly or reasonably overlook that failing. It must defend the integrity of its voter registration process by issuing a registration card that allows the voter to go the polls without undue inconvenience or added cost. Voters' rights to cast a ballot without undue barriers is a citizen's most precious franchise in our democracy. Tampering with that franchise, especially for partisan motives, cannot be tolerated.