Tennessee's controversial Voter ID law could face court challenge

photo House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart of Hendersonville speaks to reporters in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, March 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE - A controversial Tennessee law requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification at the polling places could soon face a court challenge if not changed, an attorney warned Wednesday.

"A suit is being contemplated, and we've been attempting to get it resolved through other, political means, which appear to have been fruitless - at this point," said attorney Gerard Stranch, of Nashville. "We have hopes that the Legislature will take up the issue in January and fix the law."

Stranch, an attorney in private practice, also serves as general counsel for the Tennessee Democratic Party. He said he was not at liberty to go into further detail about the possible legal action.

American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said she was aware of a possible lawsuit, but quickly added, "I don't have anything else to say" regarding any legal action.

The measure, which goes into effect Jan. 1, was passed by the Republican-led General Assembly earlier this year and signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

Republicans say the new law tightening requirements is necessary to deter voter fraud. Among other things, it requires voters without photo ID to prove their U.S. citizenship.

Democrats like Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, argue GOP supporters can only come up with one documented case of actual voter impersonation in Tennessee. They contend moves by Tennessee and other states are part of a national GOP effort to disenfranchise millions of minority, elderly, young and low-income voters across the U.S. before the 2012 elections.

Favors said she hopes legislative efforts to change Tennessee's law will be fueled by the U.S. Department of Justice's move last week to reject a similar statute passed by South Carolina Republicans. The department says it discriminates against minorities.

"I think that it could apply and it should," said Favors, who earlier this year formed a group called the Tennessee Voters Assistance Coalition to help registered voters obtain state driver licenses or other Department of Safety-issued photo ID cards.

Favors, who is black, said the Tennessee law is "not just against minorities. The first phone calls I received ... were from elderly Caucasian [white] women."

She said the law is particularly harsh for poorer, elderly voters who were born outside hospitals and don't have birth certificates.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, of Hendersonville, who along with Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, of Murfreesboro, sponsored the law, said South Carolina's situation is different from Tennessee's.

"South Carolina is under a different scrutiny than other states are," she said. "I believe they have to get approval from the Department of Justice when they do anything to their voting laws. We're not under that scrutiny."

She also noted that Tennessee is providing free photo IDs for voting purposes and voters can even use expired driver's licenses as well as other state or federal government-issued ID to satisfy requirements. Tennessee's law, Maggart said, is based on an Indiana law that the U.S. Supreme Court found constitutional.

Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, South Carolina is one of a number of mostly Southern states required to receive federal "preclearance" on voting changes to make sure they don't hurt minorities' political power.

Republican National Committee member John Ryder, of Memphis, an attorney and expert in election law, said South Carolina "is a covered jurisdiction under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and Tennessee is not. So all the election changes in South Carolina have to be submitted to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance and Tennessee's do not."

Asked whether the same legal principles could apply, Ryder said no, charging Democratic President Barack Obama's administration's action against South Carolina was "purely a political move by a political Department of Justice."

"Let's be clear on this: voter ID laws are not partisan in nature," Ryder said, citing a Democratic-backed law in Rhode Island. "They're not racial in nature."

While declining to discuss possible legal action, ACLU Tennessee's Weinberg said in Tennessee "there's no question that the bill was pursued in order to disinefranchise Tennesseans."

She said such laws "often have a disparate impact on minorities and seniors, students, disabled individuals and low income persons who often don't have access to the document requirement ... let along the financial ability to access the document necessary to get documents."

Safety Department officials are trying to help an estimated 126,000 Tennesseans ages 60 and over with nonphoto driver's licenses obtain them more easily by opening driver service centers on the first Saturday of each month. Free IDs are also being issued to nondrivers for voting purposes.

From July 1 to Dec. 23, the department says it issued 9,207 voter IDs. Of that number, 8,718 were nonphoto driver licenses converted into photo driver's licenses. The other 489 were original photo IDs.

In Hamilton County, the state's two driver service centers have issued 630 photo driver's licenses or original ID, about 6.8 percent of the state's total.