Voter ID Law Controversy Could Continue

By Bill Dries

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. gave a lawyer’s answer when asked what would happen if the Tennessee Legislature might amend the state law requiring a photo voter ID in light of the Thursday, Oct. 25, Tennessee Court of Appeals ruling on the matter.

The court upheld the law but also ruled that the city of Memphis photo library cards are a valid form of ID under that law.

Wharton was specifically asked what the city’s reaction would be if legislators return to Nashville in January and amend the law to specifically prohibit photo library cards.

“In the judicial system we don’t answer hypothetical questions. We would just have to deal with it,” Wharton said. “I would hope that the opinion would be read closely.”

But there are enough hypotheticals in what amounted to a split decision on the more general issue of voter identification laws to suggest Thursday’s ruling wasn’t the end of the political cycle for the issue.

The day after the ruling Shelby County Election Commission officials had instructed poll workers to give voters presenting photo library cards at early voting a provisional ballot. State election officials in Nashville were pursuing a stay at the Tennessee Supreme Court Friday to stop enforcement of the appeals court order.

Wharton said the city is still weighing whether to seek an appeal of the part of the ruling in which the court ruled the 2011 law is constitutional and does not discourage voting.

“I’ll leave that to the lawyers,” he said. “We ended up where we wanted to be. But I am going to leave that question to the lawyers. … We worked within the law.”

Lt. Gov. and state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey praised the court for preserving the law.

“Tennessee’s voter ID law is necessary, proper and completely constitutional,” Ramsey said of the ruling. “This has been made plain by the courts and remains undisputed.”

But in the same written statement, Ramsey said photo library cards also permitted by the ruling “clearly violates the legislative intent of this law.”

The Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union’s position is just the opposite.

Tennessee ACLU Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said part of the court’s ruling “at least helps Memphians meet the onerous photo ID requirement.”

But Weinberg added the group is “disappointed” the court upheld the law “because it undermines our fundamental right to vote by disenfranchising a significant number of Tennesseans.”

Proponents of the law cite the need for voter identification in Tennessee specifically because of documented cases of people voting in the names of the dead in the 2005 special state Senate race between Ophelia Ford and Terry Roland in Shelby County. Roland lost by 13 votes in the election that was contested in court prompting the revelations of dead voters and voters listing addresses that were vacant lots.

Wharton said the state law addresses a problem that doesn’t exist.

“No one has shown that there was a lot of impersonal fraud going on,” Wharton said. “Why would the legislature wish to go in and come up with a remedy for a problem that does not exist?”

Attorney Lang Wiseman, who was the attorney behind the 2005 election challenge by Roland, said there is a middle ground in what remains a lively and very partisan issue that seems unresolved even for the last election of 2012.

“In the main, there’s not a considerable amount of fraud going on,” Wiseman said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines” earlier this month. “It does occur. Now on the other end of the spectrum you hear political people say that you’re going to disenfranchise a lot of people. There are a lot of safeguards that are built into the law.”

Wiseman cited free photo IDs made available by the Tennessee Department of Safety.

Democratic Shelby County Election Commissioner Norma Lester said she backs the idea of requiring a photo ID to vote but not the specifics of the existing law prior to the appeals court ruling.