High-ranking U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., has expressed “widespread concern” to Gov. Bill Haslam over Tennessee’s controversial new election law that requires citizens display photo identification to vote, suggesting it could disenfranchise certain demographics.
Accordingly, Durbin has asked Haslam to “identify the steps your administration is taking” to ensure all Tennesseans can efficiently obtain free photo identification before the next election.
“Although the text of Tennessee’s new laws technically apply to all citizens, these new voting restrictions could have a disproportionate impact on the minority, young, senior, disabled, rural, homeless, and low income communities in Tennessee,” Durbin wrote to Haslam in a letter Thursday.
Durbin chairs the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. In recent days, the Illinois senator has targeted other strict voter ID laws in various states — Kansas, Texas and South Carolina, for example — also passed by Republican-dominated state legislatures.
Tennessee’s version, passed through a bill sponsored by state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, requires voters present to the precinct registrar “identification that bears the name and photograph of the voters.”
The law, one of several Republican measures cleared during the most recent legislative session, drew widespread criticism from Tennessee Democrats and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. It goes into effect in 2012.
Press secretary David Smith directed The City Paper to the Tennessee Department of Safety when asked to comment on Durbin’s letter. The agency was closed when Smith responded.
In his letter, Durbin acknowledged the Tennessee law requires photo identification be provided free of charge, but pointed out it does not expand the hours or increase the number of locations where one can obtain photo identification. Durbin said the Tennessee state license bureau — which issues such IDs — operates only in one-third of Tennessee’s 95 counties.
“As a result, minority, senior, young, disabled, and low income residents in these urban areas have to surmount a cumbersome bureaucratic burden in order to obtain a photo identification card,” Durbin wrote, adding that urban residents often wait up to four hours for such services.
Durbin said he is also concerned some Tennesseans may believe they have sufficient photo identification when, in fact, they don’t. He cited a recent Memphis Commercial Appeal story that reported 126,262 registered Tennessee voters have opted for non-photo driver’s licenses.