In an editorial last Monday we criticized the Republican-dominated Legislature for passing a law requiring voters to produce a government-issued photo ID in order to vote, and for making voters pay the state to obtain such an ID card if they didn't already have one. We criticized that new requirement as an unconstitutional poll tax on voters' rights that likely would doom the bill when it was contested in court.
Our statements in that regard were accurate when we published them Monday morning, but that changed when the governor signed an amending bill into law later that day authorizing the state to issue free photo IDs for the purpose of voting. We're happy to acknowledge the late legislation that immediately changed the poll-tax status of the new voting law.
The late amendment, however, does not cure all of the new voting act's defects, nor does it mitigate the partisan motive behind its passage: the national Republican agenda that prompted nearly half the states across the country to pursue similar laws to dampen voting by likely Democrats.
Voter surveys, for example, show that squeezing voting rights makes it harder for certain segments of voters - the elderly, the handicapped, the poor, new immigrant citizens and students - and thus hinders the Democratic Party more than the GOP.
The timing and nature of the amendment have an irregular history that suggests that Gov. Bill Haslam and the Legislature's Republican leaders finally realized, however late, that the poll-tax effect would sink the voter-ID bill. That's the only part they wanted to fix.
A legislative summary of the late amendment, which entirely replaced an unrelated vehicle title problem, simply states that Tennesseans who have a voter registration card may receive a photo-ID license free of charge by filing an affidavit stating that they need a photo ID "for voting purposes."
Obtaining a free photo ID for voters isn't that simple, however.
Blake Fontenay, a spokesperson for Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett who informed us of the amendment bill Wednesday afternoon, confirmed on Friday that such free photo-ID license cards may only be issued by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, and then only by going to a Department of Motor Vehicle full-service center equipped to issue photo-ID driver's licenses.
That, and the paperwork, will prove to be a problem for many voters who need photo IDs. These centers are not convenient and readily accessible for many Tennesseans, as they should be. Just 39 of Tennessee's 95 counties have such driver's license centers. That means that many people without a current photo-ID driver's license must find someone to take them to such a center, and wait on them.
A voter registration card isn't enough to qualify for a free photo ID, either. Applicants will need several more personal documents to prove their identity, residency and legal status. A certified birth certificate or current passport, for example, would prove identity; tax documents, current bills and an array of other documents would suffice for residency and legal status. A full listing of such documents may be found online at http://www.tn.gov/safety/driverlicense/dlidentify.htm#secondary.
Obtaining such documents may be difficult for some voters who are already registered to vote but have no photo ID. But that's precisely the point of the new law, here and in a dozen other states which have recently adopted similar laws. The law's purpose is to create a hassle factor which will dissuade many Democrats from voting. If that were not so, the state would have installed a photo-ID machine in every county's election commission, where prior verification of citizenship, residency and personal signatures has already been logged.
When this page asked Haslam and Tennessee Secretary of State Hargett a couple of months ago why the state would not fund a photo-ID camera for every county's election commission to make it easy and convenient for voters to comply with a photo-ID requirement, they just shrugged their shoulders and said it would be expensive.
That's what they're still doing. The new under-the-radar amendment didn't fix the problem, and they didn't intend for it to do so. It's a Band-Aid legal ploy, not a legitimate effort to help citizens whom they don't want to vote. That's a sad but telling commentary on their embrace of partisanship over the deeper virtue of true democracy.