Tennessee voter ID law awaits effect on seniors

9:31 AM, Sep 28, 2011   |    comments
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Chas Sisk | The Tennessean
A new Tennessee law requiring voters to show photo identification at polling stations may hinge on whether it discourages voting by the elderly.

State officials are launching an intense campaign this fall to teach hundreds of thousands of senior citizens about the new voter identification law that goes into effect just in time for next year's presidential campaign. The outreach campaign is meant to keep voters - especially the 230,000 Tennesseans older than 60 whose driver's licenses do not have their pictures on them - from being turned away at the polls for lack of identification.

At stake could be the validity of voter ID laws themselves in Tennessee and the eight other states that have passed them. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld voter ID requirements in concept three years ago, but justices said then that they might reconsider if opponents could produce actual voters who had been turned away because they could not get ID.

The requirement is especially controversial among senior citizens, many of whom have been voting for decades in Tennessee without having to produce a picture ID. While some seniors believe the law will combat voter fraud, others say its main purpose is to suppress turnout among older voters by requiring them to revisit driver's license stations.

"It is a 2½-hour wait just to get somebody to see you," Mary Lou Pierce, 73, said over a taco lunch Tuesday in Bellevue. "It is ridiculous (when) you're talking about somebody's who's got a walker. ... That is just awful, and it is to disenfranchise."

The voter ID law passed the state legislature in the spring and goes into effect for any election held in Tennessee after Jan. 1.

The state election coordinator has planned a push of email messages, town halls, public service announcements and, in some cases, individual phone calls to voters to make sure they have the right identification before they get to the polls. AARP and the Farm Bureau have joined in the effort, which ramps up next month.

The campaigns come ahead of the law's first major test in the March presidential primaries.

"I think by the time March gets here, people will be tired of hearing about the voter ID law," said Mark Goins, the state's election coordinator.

Law meant to fight against fraud

Proponents say the law will combat voter fraud, a goal some midday participants in the Fifty Forward program at the Bellevue YMCA said makes the requirement worthwhile.

"I think they ought to have them," said Dorothy Brown, 83.

Opponents of the voter ID law say fraud is rare and usually perpetrated by election workers, not voters posing as other people. They also argue that the proposal will discourage turnout among the poor, disabled and senior citizens - people who are less likely to own cars and have driver's licenses, the most common form of picture identification.

A quirk of Tennessee law has made the issue of special interest to seniors. The state does not require drivers older than 60 to get a picture on their licenses, a convenience that makes it easier for them to renew online or by mail.

Nearly one-quarter of a million Tennesseans have opted not to get a picture, according to the Department of Safety. Of those, 126,000 are registered to vote, state officials say.

The state will issue a photo ID for free to any voter who says he or she cannot afford one. But to get one, most voters will have to travel to a driver's license station, which opponents say is especially burdensome to people who are too old or infirm to drive.

"My mother is 92 years old and lives in assisted living," Donna Coode, 69, said in a conversation about the law over a game of mah-jongg. "She has nothing with a picture on it. ... I can't imagine having to take her."

Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, which has campaigned against the law, said such situations are more common than state officials acknowledge.

"I think we're going to find that there are a lot of those people that don't have the means or the opportunity to make that trip back to the DMV," she said.

Open to challenge

Goins disputed that claim, saying the law includes enough provisions that it will ensure senior citizens can vote.

The list of acceptable IDs is broad enough that many people who do not have pictures on their driver's licenses will have some other form of identification, he said. There are also exceptions to the ID requirement for people in nursing homes, hospitals or voting absentee.

For the law to survive, it may have to meet that high standard of no voters being turned away.

Like other states, Tennessee has based its law on a 2008 Supreme Court review of Indiana's voter ID law. In that case, the court ruled that state officials' interest in protecting the integrity of elections was important enough to allow an ID requirement.

But that ruling also left some wiggle room for opponents to challenge ID laws again.

The original suit challenged Indiana's law on its face, arguing that it was inherently unconstitutional. But three justices said then that they might have ruled differently if opponents could have shown that some voters could not get picture IDs.

Goins acknowledged that any disenfranchised voters could lead to legal action. But he said the campaign's main purpose is simply to make sure Tennesseans know what they have to do to vote.

"I can't find anybody that's going to be disenfranchised," he said. "But if there is somebody that's been disenfranchised, there are enough opponents, I'm sure it's going to be loud and vocal."

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