Two elderly Tennessee women -- one 96, the other 91, both regular voters for decades -- can now testify directly as to how the state's new voter photo ID law may deny vast numbers of Tennessee voters the elemental franchise of a supposedly democratic society -- their right to vote. The law, passed this year by the state's ruling Republican triumvirate, mimics similar laws also passed this year in 13 other Republican-controlled states, and in three others last year.
Chattanooga resident Dorothy Cooper, 96, carried her birth certificate, her voter registration card, a rent receipt, and a lease agreement on her first attempt to get a photo ID voter card at a local state driver's license center. But since her married name on the latter three of those documents didn't match her maiden name on her birth certificate, she was denied a voter photo ID. The state agent at the counter told Cooper she needed a marriage certificate to link her married name to her maiden name.
(One notable irony must be inserted here: Had she carried a state gun-carry permit, rather than her Chattanooga Police Department-issued Boynton Terrace public housing resident card, she would have been entitled, under the new Republican law, to a voter photo ID, which essentially tells you for whom Republicans will kneel and serve.)
Cooper, an African-American and a domestic worker for a Nashville family for 50 years before she retired, had never learned to drive, and hasn't needed to since she retired and moved back to Chattanooga in 1993. After this newspaper, and then other media, picked up the story, Tennessee officials got very concerned. Tennessee Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons said the state was now "encouraging our employees to use some common sense discretion in deciding whether or not that person is presenting documentation that is legitimate and issue the photo ID accordingly."
Oh. Well that fixes, the problem, doesn't it? Let's have discretionary employee decisions now, in lieu of the former rules the Republicans claim had threatened voter fraud.
That's hardly prescriptive. But even so, when Cooper returned a second time with an escort trying to help her, it still took a telephone call by none other than Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey to the Red Bank driver's license center to get Cooper's voter photo-ID cleared. We suspect it helped Cooper that a videographer team was taping the encounter.
But neither Gibbons' nor Ramsey's effort would have helped 91-year-old Virginia Lasater, the Murfreesboro resident who last week gave up waiting in one of the state's long lines at drivers' license centers, where waits can last four hours. She said she was physically unable to stand up long enough in the line to get to the counter.
"It makes me about halfway mad because I know what's going on," she said later. She said she was "absolutely" sure the new voter photo law is a Republican tactic to suppress voter turnout by potential Democrats.
She's right about that. Some 675,000 voting-age Tennesseans, according to the Department of Safety, do not have an acceptable photo ID for voting purposes. About 125,000 of those are drivers over 60 who previously opted (as allowed) not to get a photo on their driver's license.
Across the country, a study by the Brennan Center for Justice shows, more than 5 million eligible voters will have difficulty getting a new photo-ID for voting because of such Republican laws. That could easily tilt the next presidential election to the Republican candidate, which is obviously the reason behind this new voter suppression strategy.
Tennessee, whose GOP officials are hollering foul because the plights of people like Cooper and Lasater are being revealed, say the state must have a voter ID law to prevent voter fraud, but they can cite no proof of the need. Voter officials, meanwhile, say voter fraud is exceedingly rare.
State Republican officials also say they have allocated $438,000 to assist those who now need official photo IDs to vote. We ask how that money is being spent. Fifty-three of Tennessee's 95 counties do not have a driver's license center available to issue a voter ID card. For that reason alone, many of the elderly, the frail, the handicapped, the poor and many minorities will be not be able to get to a licensing center, and will be unable to vote unless the state makes photo IDs more easily obtainable.
If Republicans are sincere and honest in defense of their new law, they would take the simplest solution: to buy a photo ID picture machine for each county's Election Commission headquarters. At roughly $2,000 or less for each county's photo ID machine, that would take less than half the money the Legislature promised to use to help voters comply with the ID law. Certainly these offices would be easier for voters to reach than out-of-county driver's license centers.
And having issued voter registration cards and having possession of voting records and signatures, the expertise of these officers in voter registration cases would be a great help in assuring the timely issuance of voter ID photo cards. Whatever Republicans decide, they must do more to help voters obtain new voter ID cards, and they must do so quickly. Otherwise their obvious voter suppression effort will effectively result in massive voter tampering and fraud of the foulest sort. That will be permanent stain on their record.