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VOL. 126 | NO. 214 | Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Partisans Debate State Voter ID Law

By Bill Dries

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If you voted early or on Election Day in the recent city of Memphis elections, you probably got a piece of paper from election officials about the next elections.

The new state law requiring Tennessee voters to have a valid state or federal government-issued photo ID goes into effect with the 2012 elections starting with the March primaries. And the poll handout was about the new state law and what the new ground rules will be.

Early voting for the March 6 state, presidential and Shelby County primaries begins Feb. 15, which is when the first voter in Shelby County should be asked for a photo ID by an election official.

The political discussion is already well under way, with Republican and Democratic partisans crossing the state in October and this month to both explain and condemn the law.

Bill Ketron, the Republican House sponsor of the bill, is quick to say he put the bill in the hopper because of the 2005 special election in Memphis for the state Senate seat vacated when John Ford resigned as a result of the Tennessee Waltz corruption scandal.

Ford’s sister, Ophelia – who still holds the seat – beat Republican Terry Roland by 13 votes, and Roland contested the election results. The resulting examination by the state Senate found several instances where people voted in the names of dead people and or from the address of the old Oates Manor housing project, which had been demolished and was an empty lot at the time of the election.

The Senate voted to unseat Ford. Ford contested the ouster in a federal lawsuit, and in the interim ran for re-election to the seat and won a new four year term by a much wider margin.

“It was not a national movement on my part to bring the bill. I sat through federal court down in Memphis when we were sued because the Republican Caucus decided not to seat her,” Ketron said. “There were dead people who voted, people outside the district and people who were convicted felons. So, that was the genesis.”

Three polling officials pleaded guilty to voter-fraud charges and were put on probation for the felonies.

Ford’s lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds it was moot.

State Democratic party leaders are due in Memphis Thursday, Nov. 3, at the Shelby County Election Commission at the end of a six-stop voter registration drive across the state in which they will urge the Tennessee Legislature to repeal the law when it goes back to session early next year.

“This is not about suppression, it is about protection. If a qualified voter has his vote cancelled out by one unqualified voter, tell me who has been disenfranchised? Whose vote has been suppressed?”

–Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey
Republican Leader of Tennessee Senate

“This voter ID law is designed to keep hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans from being voters, and it should be repealed without hesitation,” Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester said earlier this month. “Not only do these laws take away our right to vote, but they’ll cost taxpayers millions of dollars.”

Forrester and other Democrats estimate the photo ID law affects more than 675,000 Tennesseans either without a driver’s license or with a license with no photo. Drivers ages 60 and older have the option of renewing their license without getting a new picture made during the renewal.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says the law is “wildly popular.”

“This is not about suppression, it is about protection,” the Republican leader of the Tennessee Senate said this month in a Facebook note on the issue. “If a qualified voter has his vote cancelled out by one unqualified voter, tell me who has been disenfranchised? Whose vote has been suppressed?”

He also called the Democratic claims of more than 675,000 citizens affected by the law “rubbish” and “pulled from thin air.”

During one of two public meeting with AARP members in Memphis last week, Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins put the number of affected Tennesseans at 126,000 – those who are of voting age and don’t have a driver’ license photo identification.

“It doesn’t mean they don’t have a photo,” Goins added. “In fact what we’re learning is nine times out of 10, those individuals will have a qualified photo.”

The law allows an expired driver’s license with a photo to be used.

“The purpose of this law isn’t to determine is Ms. Jones can drive,” Goins said. “We’re determining is she really Ms. Jones. That’s literally what this law is about.”

And the Tennessee Department of Safety is issuing free photo IDs to those who have none of the other forms of state or federal identification that could be used for voting.

Goins heard from one citizen in the group of 30 who questioned whether the state should at least amend its license renewal procedures to remind those 60 and over that they opting out of a photo could complicate their ability to vote.

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