96-year-old Chattanooga resident denied voting ID

Dorothy Cooper is 96 but she can remember only one election when she's been eligible to vote but hasn't.

The retired domestic worker was born in a small North Georgia town before women had the right to vote. She began casting ballots in her 20s after moving to Chattanooga for work. She missed voting for John F. Kennedy in 1960 because a move to Nashville prevented her from registering in time.

So when she learned last month at a community meeting that under a new state law she'd need a photo ID to vote next year, she talked with a volunteer about how to get to a state Driver Service Center to get her free ID. But when she got there Monday with an envelope full of documents, a clerk denied her request.

That morning, Cooper slipped a rent receipt, a copy of her lease, her voter registration card and her birth certificate into a Manila envelope. Typewritten on the birth certificate was her maiden name, Dorothy Alexander.

"But I didn't have my marriage certificate," Cooper said Tuesday afternoon, and that was the reason the clerk said she was denied a free voter ID at the Cherokee Boulevard Driver Service Center.

photo Dorothy Cooper, age 96, took her birth certificate and lease as she tried to obtain a photo ID at the Hamilton County Election Commission. The Boynton Terrace resident plans to vote by absentee ballot.

"I don't know what difference it makes," Cooper said.

Cooper visited the state driver service center with Charline Kilpatrick, who has been working with residents to get free photo IDs. After the clerk denied Cooper's request, Kilpatrick called a state worker, explained what happened and asked if Cooper needed to return with a copy of the marriage certificate.

"The lady laughed," Kilpatrick said. "She said she's never heard of all that."

Tennessee Department of Safety spokeswoman Dalya Qualls said in a Tuesday email that Cooper's situation, though unique, could have been handled differently.

"It is department policy that in order to get a photo ID, a citizen must provide documentation that links their name to the documentation that links their name to the document they are using as primary proof of identity," Qualls said. "In this case, since Ms. Cooper's birth certificate (her primary proof of identity) and voter registration card were two different names, the examiner was unable to provide the free ID."

Despite that, Qualls said, "the examiner should have taken extra steps to determine alternative forms of documentation for Ms. Cooper."

Kilpatrick has had to call the state at least twice after taking someone to get a photo ID or have a photo added to the driver's license. State law allows anyone 60 or older to have their picture removed from their license.

The state has been working diligently to make the process easy for residents, Qualls said.


photo Tennessee state representative Tommie Brown

State Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, said Tuesday that Cooper's case is an example of how the law "erects barriers" for the elderly and poor people -- a disproportionate number of whom are minorities.

"What you do, you suppress the vote," Brown said. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out."

The General Assembly passed the photo ID law earlier this year, with lawmakers saying it was needed to prevent voter fraud. The legislature allocated $438,000 to provide free photo IDs for registered voters who don't have a qualified ID.

"It makes no sense in these economic times that we are shifting our time and resources to this," Brown said.

In Nashville on Tuesday afternoon, a coalition of organizations announced an effort to repeal the law. Groups such as the ACLU of Tennessee, various chapters of the NAACP, the AFL-CIO and Tennessee Citizen Action announced a petition drive and get-out-the-vote effort.

"This is a nonpartisan issue. It's a fair voting issue," said Mary Mancini, executive director of Citizen Action, in a phone interview. "It's all about the legislators seeing that the people of Tennessee don't want this law."


Cooper isn't worried about the politics of the law.

"I hadn't thought about it," she said when asked about why legislators passed the bill.

She just wants to be able to vote.

In her decades of going to the polls, "I never had any problems," she said, not even before the Voting Rights Act passed in the 1960s.

In her 50-plus years working for the same family, she never learned to drive so she never needed a license. She retired in 1993 and returned to Chattanooga from Nashville.

Now, on occasion, one of her bank's tellers or a grocery store clerk will ask for photo ID when she writes or cashes a check, Cooper said.

"I've been banking at SunTrust for a long time," she said. "Sometimes they'll say, well, do you have a Social Security card?"

And she shows it to them. She also has a photo ID issued by the Chattanooga Police Department to all seniors who live in the Boynton Terrace public housing complex, but that won't qualify for voting.

Cooper's younger sister, now 91, lives in a nursing home across town. Nursing home residents and assisted living residents are exempt from the new photo ID requirement.

But Cooper, who barely needs a walker, is not.

Though she's still able to walk around her apartment without assistance and "takes daily exercise" at a community center next door, Cooper never had any children -- although she has outlived two husbands -- and relies on others for transportation.

The law "is a problem if you don't have a way of getting around," she said. "I've been voting all these years."

After Cooper was denied a photo ID Monday, Kilpatrick contacted Hamilton County's Administrator of Elections Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, who recommended that Cooper vote with an absentee ballot rather than having to stand in line with her walker again at the state center.

Absentee ballots don't require photo ID, and the new state law was crafted to allow that exception. A U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a similar Indiana statute cited the absentee ballot exception as one of the reasons the Indiana law didn't infringe on constitutional voting rights.

Still, Cooper said she will miss the practice of going to the voting precinct located in the building next door to hers.

"We always come here to vote," she said, nodding toward a door where voting machines are set up on election day. "The people who run the polls know everybody here."

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