NASHVILLE — State Democrats are calling on GOP lawmakers to revamp Tennessee's current photo voter-identification mandate, citing a series of five recent federal court decisions that have struck down or weakened somewhat similar provisions in other states.
Charging the 2011 legislation passed by the Republican-dominated General Assembly is little more than a "Jim Crow law" intended to "suppress the vote," U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said Tuesday federal court rulings in North Carolina, Texas and elsewhere send a message that "it's time for Tennessee to get things right."
In their Nashville news conference, Cooper and a group of state Democratic lawmakers also pointed to a 2014 U.S. General Accountability Office study of Tennessee and Kansas' photo ID laws and their apparent impact on voting.
The study found that after its enactment, Tennessee voter turnout fell more steeply over a three-year period, especially among black and younger voters, than four other states that didn't impose the tougher requirements.
Tennessee's law requires state-issued photo ID such as a state Safety Department driver's license or simple identification card, a state-issued handgun permit, a current U.S. passport and valid military ID.
State Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, who is black, said the Tennessee law's "sole purpose is to prevent people of color and poor people and women and seniors and young people from going out and voting. And we've seen that most of that happened after the election of our president, President Obama."
But state Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro quickly pushed back, citing GOP lawmakers' main argument when passing the voter ID law: voter fraud.
"It should not be easier to board a plane, cash a check, or buy cigarettes than to vote in Tennessee," said Ketron, who sponsored the law, in a statement. "Our right to vote is one of the most sacred symbols of our freedoms and we must protect the integrity of our elections. The National Democratic Convention has even required a picture ID to get in and vote."
Ketron was confident Tennessee's law is on sound legal ground, pointing out it is modeled after an Indiana law "which has withstood the scrutiny of the U.S. Supreme Court and has been tested in our own state's Supreme Court. It certainly stands with Indiana as the model for others to follow."
When the law was debated, state election officials could only point to one case of fraud involving someone impersonating another person. But they defended pressing for the law, saying voter fraud cases are difficult to establish.
State Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, an attorney, told reporters Tuesday that "voter fraud in the state of Tennessee is like hunting zebras [here]. They don't exist. It is not about voter fraud, it is about keeping people from the ballot box."
Tennessee Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville said the state's law has been upheld by state and federal courts here and has adequate protections.
"The law has provisions for Tennesseans to obtain photo identification free of charge, and a provisional ballot may be cast by those who lack identification initially at the polls," Harwell said in a statement. "I am comfortable with the law as it is written."
Tennessee's law is deemed among the nine most stringent among states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan organization for states.
While the law was highly controversial in Tennessee when it passed, the measure and the issue later drew national attention and criticism because of 96-year-old Dorothy Cooper of Chattanooga.
Cooper, who is black, had voted consistently for decades, despite Jim Crow-era laws aimed at discouraging or preventing blacks from voting. But Cooper was turned away when she sought one of the state's free photo IDs in 2011.
At issue was that her maiden name, Dorothy Alexander, was on her birth certificate and she didn't have a copy of her marriage license. Cooper, who was born before women got the right to vote in 1920 and who began voting in the 1940s, eventually got her state government-issued ID. It took her two trips and on one occasion a very long wait to get it.
In recent weeks, judges on the 4th and 5th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals have invalidated major provisions of the North Carolina and Texas voter ID laws. The 4th Circuit said North Carolina's law targeted blacks "with almost surgical precision."
In Tennessee, there were several legal challenges to the state's photo ID law. In 2012, the city of Memphis won a partial victory before the state Supreme Court when it allowed the use of the city library system's photo-ID cards to be used as proof.
Republican lawmakers came back the following year and changed the law to specifically exclude library cards, which the city had argued had required sufficient proof of identity and address to meet the requirements of a suitable government-issued identification.
In 2013, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the overall law in a challenge brought by Memphis and two voters alleging it placed an unfair burden on the poor, elderly and others who lack driver's licenses.
And in 2015, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger in Nashville upheld Tennessee's voter ID law prohibiting the use of college student identification cards at the polls. GOP lawmakers specifically excluded them, saying they can be easily forged and arguing it happens frequently when underage students seek fake IDs to buy alcohol.
Nashville attorney Dave Garrison, whose law firm has been in the forefront of past legal efforts to challenge the state's law, said "Tennesseans — led by Tennessee Democrats and civil rights advocates, including my former law partner George Barrett — brought some of the first challenges to voter identification laws in the country.
"While those challenges ultimately failed, we should expect to continue to see constitutional challenges to these discriminatory laws based on facts gathered over the last couple of election cycles, including a [Government Accountability Office report] showing that the laws resulted in fewer people exercising their right to vote."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.