Tennessee Representative uses her mother's story in crusade to change photo ID law

Tennessee state Rep. JoAnne Favors visited the Times Free Press for a meeting with the editorial board at the newspaper's offices on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, in Chattanooga.

NASHVILLE - State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, celebrated her mother's 94th birthday on the House floor Thursday by pointedly telling the GOP-controlled chamber her mother can't vote in Tennessee because of a 2011 law it passed that she says should change.

"She taught school until well into her 70s and was always civically engaged," Favors said. "Now she's disheartened because she's one of those individuals who was never issued a birth certificate."

As a result, Favors said, her mother is "unable to obtain a photo identification license so that she can vote" under state law. "She loves Tennessee and is a citizen. And we hope she will be afforded the opportunity to vote before she transitions from this life."

Favors said it's not just her mother who has problems. A number of Tennessee senior citizens face similar issues, which is why she is offering a bill to remedy the situation, the lawmaker said.

She said when her grandmother gave birth to her mother back in 1923, it wasn't in a hospital. Family members and neighbors attended the birth.

"They wouldn't even let us in the hospital then," said Favors, who is black. "It wasn't even a midwife."

There are a dwindling number of other Tennessee seniors facing similar problems, she said.

Favors' bill is pending in the House Local Government Subcommittee. It seeks to make it easier for Tennesseans age 65 and older to meet requirements to obtain official photo identification issued by the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

The safety department issues non-driver's license photo IDs as well as driver's licenses. Those and other state ID, like a handgun-carry license or federally issued photo ID such as a passport, are required to show at Tennessee polls under the voter ID law passed after Republicans assumed control of the entire General Assembly six years ago.

Republicans and groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council said such measures were necessary to deter fraud, although they could cite few cases involving in-person voting fraud in Tennessee. Democrats charged the voter ID law was intended to suppress voting by the young, the elderly and minorities.

Similar laws were passed across the country.

Favors' bill would apply to Tennessee residents who were never issued birth certificates and allow them to satisfy state requirements by furnishing a Social Security card, Medicare card, health insurance card "or other satisfactory document substantiating the person's identity."

The bill came under question earlier this week in the House subcommittee. Favors said she intends to return next week with an amendment that would restrict eligibility to people who were age 80 or older as of 2016.

During the Tuesday hearing, safety department attorney Matthew Mundy said the department was neutral on the legislation.

"We've been working with the sponsor. We take no position on the bill," he said. "We've been trying to work with the sponsor to address her concerns."

Favors on Thursday confirmed reports that safety officials have reached out to her to offer help to address her mother's situation.

"What I was told this morning by someone who had talked with them was they would help get it from U.S. Census records. But you would have to go through this whole process. And that's so unfortunate. Now, I can do that for my mother, I can get her Census records and things."

But Favors said resolving the situation of a state lawmaker's mother won't address obstacles faced by other elderly Tennesseans and perhaps their relatives who don't have knowledge about accessing U.S. Census rolls going back decades.

"I think it would be selfish of me to just accept help for my mother," she said. "I want to do this for anybody who is a citizen and can document that they are a citizen, and I'm willing to move that age up to 80 rather than 65 because it's [members of] that generation that were more likely to not have a birth certificate.

"I'm concerned about everybody who's disenfranchised," Favors said.

Safety department officials did not respond to questions by the Times Free Press about Favors' assertion the department was offering assistance to help address her situation.

Tennessee's law drew national attention six years ago when another Chattanoogan, 96-year-old Dorothy Cooper, who also is black, was turned away from a Department of Safety Driver Services Center when she sought the free photo ID offered to those 60 and older.

Cooper, who had voted during the Jim Crow era with no issues, didn't have a problem per se with her birth certificate - she had that. It was the fact that she had outlived two husbands and hadn't used her maiden name for decades.

Friends helped Cooper eventually obtain the appropriate documents. She got her photo ID and voted in 2012.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.