To the many critics of Tennessee’s new law requiring photo ID for voters, this state’s Republicans respond with two words: Rhode Island.
That’s because, even though Democrats run Rhode Island, they still joined Tennessee and five other Republican-run states in adopting a photo ID law of their own this year. That puts the lie to claims the laws are a vast right-wing conspiracy to make voting difficult and suppress turnout by the poor, the elderly and other traditional Democratic constituencies, Republicans say.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. Senate, stirred up this argument last week when he came to Nashville and sat down with reporters to accuse Tennessee Republicans of working in league with corporate billionaires to undermine voting rights.
“I don’t see Dick Durbin going to Rhode Island,” an obviously irked state Elections Coordinator Mark Goins told The City Paper the day after the senator’s visit. “All these Democrats are out there saying voters are going to be disenfranchised. I say, ‘Show me one.’
“They say Republicans are leading the charge, but then you look at Rhode Island and you see it’s not the case because there it was led by the Democrats,” Goins added. “Democrats in Rhode Island come out and say it’s common sense. This is going to be a nationwide trend.”
Joined by Congressman Jim Cooper in Nashville, Durbin jumped at the opportunity offered by one reporter’s inviting question to paint Republicans as tools of the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council and the billionaire Koch brothers, industrialist financiers of right-wing causes and the latest bugaboos of liberals. In fact, the chief sponsor of Tennessee’s law, Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, belongs to ALEC and went to its annual meeting in New Orleans this summer.
ALEC denies twisting any arms to help enact the laws. Yes, ALEC does offer a “model bill” on photo ID on its website, but the organization hasn’t been asking state legislators to push the proposal, said its spokeswoman, Raegan Weber.
“ALEC supports every person’s right to vote,” she said. “We have no campaign or concerted effort or anything to prevent voter turnout.”
Durbin contended ALEC has “played a major role” in the proliferation of the requirements since Republicans seized control of legislatures around the country in the 2010 GOP wave election.
“ALEC’s major financiers are the Koch brothers, who come to this conversation with a clear political agenda, a very conservative Republican approach, and they have bankrolled this effort,” Durbin said. “The old movie said, ‘Show me the money.’ And if you look for the money behind ALEC, you find that it’s the Koch brothers.
“And you also find the voters most likely to be effected by these laws tend to be Democratic. Add ’em up. You’ll see there’s at least a political motivation here on its face to reduce the turnout in some areas and to advantage Republican candidates.”
Republicans defend the laws as combating voter fraud. Yet pressed to name examples of it, they struggle. Goins could name only one confirmed Tennessee case of an ineligible voter casting a ballot by impersonating an eligible voter — the act that photo ID presumably is meant to stop.
That has prompted Democrats to call photo ID a solution without a problem, and it has fueled their claims of nefarious GOP motives. But Democrats in Rhode Island defend photo ID as a way to build public confidence in the integrity of elections, regardless of whether anyone’s actually trying to vote illegally.
Rhode Island’s Democratic Secretary of State Ralph Mollis decided to push for photo ID after voters suggested it in public hearings on how to improve elections, said his spokesman, Chris Barnett.
“It’s the perception that matters,” Barnett said. “Just the perception that fraud takes place has a chilling effect on elections and on voters’ confidence in their elected officials. Voter ID addresses that issue in particular.”
Besides, Goins asked, how is anyone supposed to know how many people are voting illegally until there is photo ID to check?
“It’s like this: How do you know someone’s speeding if you don’t have a radar gun? We haven’t had a mechanism to detect it.”
“Folks say there’s been no impersonation,” he added. “My argument to them is, show me one person who’s been disenfranchised, and they can’t.”
Rhode Island’s law is more forgiving than Tennessee’s. First, it allows voters without photo ID to cast provisional ballots. There is no requirement that they later obtain the ID. Election officials will compare signatures on the ballot and registration card to decide whether to count the vote. In Tennessee, voters also can cast provisional ballots, but then they have to show government-issued photo ID within 48 hours or their vote is tossed.
Also, Rhode Island’s law doesn’t take effect until the 2014 elections, giving voters more time to prepare. Tennessee’s requirement goes into effect for next year’s elections, and Democrats worry many thousands of voters will be disenfranchised.
No one knows how many eligible voters in Tennessee don’t have ID. But the Tennessee Department of Safety counts at least 126,000 drivers over age 60 who have chosen to carry non-photo licenses and are registered to vote.
Voters can use expired driver’s licenses with pictures and expired military ID as well as handgun carry permits — but not student photo ID from universities because lawmakers said it’s too easy to make phony ones.
The state is offering free photo ID at its driver service centers if residents certify they’re going to vote. The state intends to notify the 126,000 drivers by mail that they are entitled to the free ID. But would-be voters might have to wait hours in line to get one.
The safety department estimates the average wait time across the state is 55 minutes. But that’s after reaching the first kiosk to take a number. Lines to that kiosk sometimes snake outside the building and around the block.
One day this summer, 40 people hoping to snag photo ID stood for two hours in 90-plus degree heat without water, shelter or chairs outside a driver’s license center in a predominantly black neighborhood of Memphis, according to the Tri-State Defender, the African-American newspaper in that city. Once inside the building, the citizens waited two more hours for their ID.
In a 6-3 ruling in 2008, the Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s photo ID law. The court rejected arguments that the law imposed unwarranted burdens on poor, elderly and minority voters without photo ID. Democrats contend the court might take another look at the laws if provided with more evidence of the difficulties they pose for voters.
“If they explore the real cost of people to comply with state laws, it raises some serious constitutional questions,” Durbin said.
“You shouldn’t have to go through all this red tape to vote,” agreed Cooper, who said he had to take his 92-year-old mother to a driver’s license center for a photo ID because she hasn’t driven in years. “It’s a minefield for the uninitiated.”
Congressman Steve Cohen, who represents Memphis, has joined other Democrats in asking U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to look into whether photo ID laws violate the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits laws that have a greater impact on minority voters than on others.
State officials dismissed all the concern as Democratic hand-wringing. State Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons said he’s setting up “express lanes” for citizens to obtain the free ID. Long lines don’t violate the Voting Rights Act anyway, he said, because the waits are no shorter in white neighborhoods. It’s equal opportunity misery, he said.
Goins estimates state and local election officials will make a thousand speeches to civic groups around the state to try to educate the public about the law’s requirements.
“As far as getting the word out,” he said, “I feel pretty comfortable.”