GOP’s photo ID law is more voter suppression
Posted: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 7:02 pm
By: State Sen. Roy Herron
When my 94-year-old mother was born, women were not allowed to vote. But then Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment, and for seven decades Mother has voted faithfully. This year, my Republican colleagues in the legislature took away that right when they made it harder for her — and as many as 675,000 other Tennesseans — to continue to vote.
Ironically, legislators from the party that supposedly favors less government and more privacy passed a law requiring my mother to obtain a “big-government” photo identity card in order to vote. When the law goes into effect with the March 2012 presidential primary elections, poll workers will no longer accept her voter registration card as sufficient proof of identity.
Mother has not driven in at least two decades, so she has no driver’s license. But when she is pushed in her wheelchair to the polls, not one election worker will mistake her for another 94-year-old trying to cast a felonious, fraudulent vote.
My mother is one of 675,337 Tennesseans age 18 and older who, according to the Department of Safety, either have no driver’s license or have a license that does not carry their photo. These citizens may be registered to vote, but unless they obtain a photo ID from a driver’s license station or can produce another type of government-issued photo ID that the new law accepts (such as a military ID or a passport) they will not be allowed to vote.
This new requirement creates several problems.
First, one cannot get a government ID card from the state Department of Safety without producing a “primary proof of identity,” most commonly a birth certificate. Not surprisingly, my mother’s 1916 birth certificate has been misplaced. So she and thousands of other registered voters like her will have to get new birth certificates, which is where the next problem arises.
To apply for a birth certificate, my mother must either travel to the state Department of Health’s Office of Vital Records in Nashville, submit her request online or telephone the office. Traveling nearly halfway across the state is not feasible for many elderly, disabled, mobility-challenged, poor or employed Tennesseans. My mother and thousands of other Tennesseans are not computer literate, so they cannot order a birth certificate online.
I recently asked Annie Prescott, a Nashville attorney, to navigate the third option — a phone call to the Office of Vital Records. She spent the better part of an hour on the phone trying to speak to a live person.
Over 15 menu options offered by a series of recorded messages led to three busy signals and four hang-ups. Finally, Prescott got a real person on the phone, who instructed her to call another number. That number was for a company that charges an additional $15 to process the $15 request. And unless you pay another $5 to expedite service you must then wait weeks to receive the birth certificate.
So the total cost of what is supposed to be a free state-issued photo ID card so far is $35, not counting the long-distance charges for the phone call, the cost of one’s time or the frustration of the process. And applicants still have to take the birth certificate to a driver’s license testing station, where they may have to wait in line for hours.
Only 43 of Tennessee’s 95 counties have such centers. Half the counties in West Tennessee, and two-thirds of the counties in my state Senate district, don’t have them. Some of the rural Tennesseans I represent will have to drive from their county through a second county and into a third to reach the closest driver’s license center — a trip of 40 to 60 miles each way. Taking a day off work and with gas averaging $3.58 a gallon, even at minimum wage the expense of travel and lost wages will cost people perhaps an additional $80 to $100 to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
This cost of this process—in many cases totaling $110 to $135, if not more — is such a burden that for many voters it will amount to disenfranchisement.
My Republican colleagues claim this legislation is necessary to prevent voter fraud, citing a state Senate election in Memphis in 2005 in which votes were recorded from two deceased people. But the fact is that the culprits in that case were dishonest election workers, not voters. Photo ID cards would not solve that problem.
My mother has children who live in West Tennessee, and we’ll do what has to be done to ensure she can continue to vote. But what about the other mothers and fathers, the blind, the hearing-impaired, the disabled, the elderly, the poor and the working people who already struggle to pay their bills, much less these new “poll taxes” of $100 or more to meet the requirements of the photo ID law?
This law is simply the latest in a long chain of outrageous actions designed to keep those who don’t look or think like the controlling politicians from voting. People have died trying to register to vote. Now even those who are registered may still be denied the right to vote.