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TN court to hear challenge of voter ID law

7:14 AM, Oct 12, 2012   |    comments
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By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean

Opponents of the state's new voter identification law will get another chance to see it overturned, as a Nashville court set a date for a hearing on their legal challenge.

The Court of Appeals agreed Thursday to hear oral arguments in a suit filed by the city of Memphis and two voters, which argues that requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls violates the state and federal constitutions.

The hearing will take place Oct. 18, one day after early voting begins in Tennessee.

The timing means balloting will begin in the Nov. 6 general election without a resolution in the two-year battle over voter ID. Advocates on both side of the issue say they are preparing for the election to be conducted as if the law will remain in place.

"Right now, it's still the law," said Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, an opponent of the photo requirement. "So there's no question that people need to know the law and what IDs are allowed."

Judges in Pennsylvania and South Carolina have recently delayed implementation of voter ID laws, saying that officials in those states had not done enough to ensure that legitimate voters will not be turned away. But the courts in those states did not strike down the law, leaving it open to enforcement in 2013.

Opponents of the law say it disenfranchises poor, young and elderly voters who are less likely to have driver's licenses. Defenders say the requirement guards against voter fraud and protects the integrity of elections.

Opponents calculate that as many as 390,000 registered voters in Tennessee lack a picture ID card, including roughly 105,000 voters 60 or older. Election officials say the number is likely far lower, noting that any form of ID issued by state or federal government is acceptable at the polls, even if it comes from outside Tennessee or has expired.

Polls will be open

Memphis sued the state after election officials declared poll workers could not accept the city's newly issued library cards that bear the holder's picture as ID. A federal judge struck down that suit, but she left open the possibility that the voter ID might violate the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions' voting protections.

Lawyers for the city and voters have since pursued the matter in state court. When Tennessee judges also sided with election officials, they asked for a hearing before early voting starts next week.

Instead, the appeals court agreed to hear their case after polls open. George Barrett, an attorney representing Memphis, said the timing of the hearing should not affect balloting because voters can cast provisional ballots if they lack ID. Those ballots will be counted if the court delays or strikes down the ID law.

"People should go ahead and vote if they want to," he said.

A spokesman for the secretary of state's office, which oversees elections in Tennessee, declined to comment on the timing of the hearing but indicated officials plan to proceed on the assumption the law will remain in place.

"Our position is that the photo ID law remains in effect unless a court tells us otherwise," spokesman Blake Fontenay said. "The trial court found that the plaintiffs' lawsuit was without merit and dismissed it in its entirety and we fully expect that decision to be affirmed on appeal."

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