New Memphis library cards that include a photo have become a challenge to the new state law requiring certain state-issued photo identification in order to vote.
The Memphis library system unveiled the move to the photo library cards last week with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. saying the new library cards could be used to vote starting with the upcoming Aug. 2 elections. Early voting begins Friday, July 13.
Less than 24 hours later, Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins contradicted that, saying the new library cards are not valid for voter identification.
"Some judge somewhere will have to decide who is right on the voter ID," Wharton said Monday, July 9. "We still contend that it can be used. We'll just have to wait and see. I'm sure it will be challenged if someone is turned down."
Meanwhile, Shelby County Election Commissioners announced late Monday that the photo library cards will not be recognized as voter identification when early voting starts Friday.
"If a voter presents a city issued library card photo ID, voting officials have been instructed to first ask if the voter has an acceptable form of photo ID, a state or federally issued photo ID," a written statement from the Election Commission reads. "If the voter does not have an acceptable form of photo ID, the election official will offer the voter an orange provisional ballot to cast."
The first indication of such a challenge came from City Attorney Herman Morris Saturday, July 7, and it went beyond the question of the new library cards to the root of the law.
“The administration of the city of Memphis does not support the new state requirement that challenges voters to produce a photo ID to exercise their constitutionally protected right to vote,” Morris said. “We do, however, wish to provide citizens all legally appropriate and accessible opportunities to meet the requirements of the law, while it exists. … It is regrettable that those charged in carrying out our elections seem set on denying the opportunity to the citizens to use this additional equally legal, more convenient and accessible means of satisfying the new photo ID requirement. … It satisfies the law and in our opinion no one utilizing it for voting purposes should be challenged.”
For the Shelby County Election Commission, the body that will check voter identification starting with the opening of early voting Friday at its Downtown headquarters, the legal opinion that counts comes from Goins.
“The legislature clearly intended that only state or federal photo IDs can be used,” Goins wrote Friday after the new library cards were unveiled, “which prevents us from accepting county or city IDs.”
Beyond Goins, an opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General’s office could either change that conclusion or reinforce it.
Wharton pointed out Monday that Goins' had been contradicted before by the AG's office last year when Goins initially said the ballot question on schools consolidation could not go on a Memphis ballot.
"Why are you automatically assuming he's right?" Wharton asked. "He doesn't have a very good record, frankly."
Wharton also acknowledged that the city did not check in advance with Goins' office before saying it could serve as voter identification.
"We can control this," Wharton said. "That's the plain letter of the law. They read it one way, we read it another way."
Morris weighed in earlier this year with a 33-page legal opinion at Wharton’s request that is the foundation of what by Monday appeared to be the start of a legal challenge of the voter identification law.
“More than one city agency and potentially the city government as a whole would qualify as a state entity under the Tennessee Code Annotated, with the Memphis library system being a primary example,” Morris wrote in the Jan. 18 legal opinion that was released Saturday. “Further, more than one city agency is authorized by law to issue identification.”