Tennessee's new voter photo ID law defended by state officials

photo Tennessee State Election Coordinator Mark Goins

Photo ID measures

State officials say they are taking measures to cut down on confusion for voters surrounding the new state law requiring a government-issued photo ID before people can vote in Tennessee. The list includes:• Expired driver's licenses with photos and federally issued photo IDs such as military, Veterans Administration and TVA will be considered valid for voting for registered voters.• People who apply at one of the Department of Safety's driver service centers for a photo identification card, which is different from a driver's license, will not be charged if they sign a statement saying it is for voting purposes.• People who show up at the polls without photo ID will be allowed to cast provisional ballots. Their votes will be counted if they can provide a government-issued photo ID, even if expired, within two days after the election.• Absentee voting without a government-issued ID is permitted. That affects people who are over age 65 and residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.• The state plans to mail out notifications in late September or early October to at least 126,000 registered voters ages 60 and older who have licenses with no pictures that they will need photo ID.

NASHVILLE -- A top state election official defended a new law requiring Tennesseans to have government-issued photo IDs to vote.

But State Election Coordinator Mark Goins acknowledged he can point only to one, possibly two, instances of someone being convicted of impersonating someone else when trying to vote.

"Well, it's kind of like the speed limit," he said in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "If you don't have a speed limit, how many [speeders] do you have? You really don't know.

"As you can imagine, it's one of the hardest types of fraud to detect because if it's happening on Election Day, you really don't have a way to catch it."

The Republican-controlled General Assembly earlier this year passed the bill, which could affect more than 126,000 people in the state.

Goins said the Department of Safety is issuing free photo IDs at its driver service centers if residents certify they're going to vote. Voters also can use expired driver's licenses with photos and identification such as expired military ID, he said.

Republicans, including Goins, a former GOP state House member, say the new law, one of many passed by states in recent years, is necessary to help combat voter fraud.

However, Democrats counter that the Tennessee law, which the National Conference of State Legislatures says is one of the nation's seven strictest, would discourage the elderly, the poor and minorities from voting.

"Any voter fraud is too much, but we have lots of rules and people in place to ensure that doesn't happen," said state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga. "The truth of the matter is that impacting hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans because of one case of voter fraud [involving impersonation] that can be cited is simply too big a burden."

State Rep. Joanne Favors, D-Chattanooga, is organizing a local effort to help the elderly, poor and minorities comply with the law's mandates. Tennessee's law is the result of a national push by Republicans, she said, and called Goins' comments about one or two instances of voter impersonation "troubling to me."

"And it's troubling for every citizen who has obstacles put in their way," she said.

In an interview last week, state House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, said she "can assure everyone it's not a Republican conspiracy to keep people from voting. We want people to vote, but we want to make sure it's a legal vote."

Asked to cite specific instances of voting fraud involving impersonation, Goins said, "we were able to catch someone in Davidson County."

Last week, Gayle Lee Copeland Jr., 54, pleaded guilty to charges including two counts of illegal voting as well as criminal impersonation and food stamp fraud, according to a letter from Davidson County District Attorney General Leticia Alexander to Davidson County Election Deputy Lionel Barrett.

Mike Dunavant, the 25th District attorney general in West Tennessee, has dealt with about 30 cases of fraud, said state Assistant District Attorney General Julie Pillow. The "majority" of cases involved convicted felons voting, she said, but didn't have immediate details on whether any of the other cases involved impersonation.

Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

Earlier Monday, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., highlighted concerns about the new voter ID law in a Nashville news conference and called on Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to outline measures to ensure people aren't disenfranchised.

Durbin, who is holding hearings about photo-voter laws passed in states including Tennessee, last week wrote Haslam a letter voicing concerns.

"It is curious that the people most affected by this -- who would be those in lower-income categories, minorities and the elderly -- tend to vote more Democratic," Durbin told reporters Monday. "And we think in many instances in states that have done this, they will be discouraging those populations from registering and voting."

Cooper said he took his 92-year-old mother to get a government-issued photo ID from the Department of Safety because she hasn't driven in years. She got a nondriver license ID, which the state is issuing free to people who certify they need them to vote.

Calling the new law a "minefield for the uninitiated," Cooper said, "You shouldn't have to go through all this red tape to vote."

Safety Department officials say that at least 126,000 drivers over age 60 have nonphoto ID and are registered to vote. The state intends to notify them by mail that they are entitled to get the free ID.

Haslam spokesman David Smith said Monday the governor has yet to receive Durbin's letter and referred questions to the Safety Department. Safety spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said the agency is already issuing free IDs specifically for voting purposes.

Those needing the free ID, which are not driver's licenses, will be placed in "express service" lines to cut down on the amount of time they have to wait, Donnals said.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.