Cleaveland: Disenfranchising voters is a personal matter

Having once been denied the right to vote, I am particularly sensitive when legislators restrict access to the ballot box. Tennessee's photo ID law, enacted last year, is a blatant attack on the right of every adult citizen to cast a ballot. Supporters justified the measure as a means to prevent voter fraud, a rare occurrence in Tennessee.

In 1964, my wife and I moved from Baltimore to Nashville to begin my medical internship at Vanderbilt. The Davidson County registrar would not permit us to register to vote, stating that we were students (I had graduated from medical school, and we were in our mid-20s) and, thus, not entitled to participate in elections. We had neither the resources nor the time to challenge her ruling. The issue took some years to resolve. Once enfranchised, I have seldom missed an opportunity to vote.

"Taxation without representation" was a rallying cry for American colonists who opposed British rule. Once independence was achieved, however, voting rights were limited to white property owners. Most white men were allowed to vote by the early decades of the 19th century.

In 1848, a meeting at Seneca Falls, N.Y., launched the campaign to enfranchise women. Not until the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in August 1920 did women finally gain the right to vote. Tennessee's legislature played a pivotal role in the ratification process.

The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, stated that the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of race, color or previous slavery. Following the turbulent era of Reconstruction, most Southern states enacted laws that mandated poll taxes and literacy tests to block blacks from voting. In 1937, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of poll taxes.

Ratification of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution in 1964 outlawed poll taxes as a condition for voting in federal elections.

With the passage of the Voters Rights Act of 1965, Congress prohibited the states from creating barriers to voting for racial and ethnic minorities. In addition, the Justice Department was given oversight of electoral practices in states with a history of racial discrimination. This landmark legislation sprang from a national revulsion against violence primarily directed against blacks in the South.

Last year, Tennessee joined Texas and South Carolina in ratifying strict photo identification for voters. Approved photos include those on state drivers licenses, gun permits, passports and government identification. Voters without approved identification can have a free photograph taken at a state driver service center. More than half of Tennessee counties lack a center.

A person seeking to vote without photo identification may cast a provisional ballot. He must present approved identification within 24 hours for his vote to count.

This law will prevent many thousands of Tennesseans from voting. More than 100,000 drivers over age 65 do not have a photograph on their license. Many people will be unable to take time off from work to travel to a photo center. Others will lack access to private or public transportation to visit centers.

Given the injustice of denying the right to vote, it seems only fair that every citizen who is turned away at the polls should be freed from paying any state or local taxes until the next election cycle. Alternatively, the General Assembly could allocate funds for mobile units to crisscross the state to make photo identification easily accessible for all Tennesseans of voting age.

We must not turn our backs on the historic struggle to enfranchise citizens.

Email Clif Cleaveland at

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