The Tennessee Supreme Court invoked century-old arguments about suffrage in Wednesday morning’s hearing of a voter ID lawsuit brought by Nashville civil rights attorney George Barrett.
Barrett is representing the city of Memphis, which attempted last year to disperse library cards that could be used as acceptable forms of photo ID. But the state election commission instructed polls in Memphis not to accept the IDs.
The state Court of Appeals ruled before the election that the cards could be used, although they upheld the state’s photo ID requirement as well.
The state appealed the decision to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Both sides presented oral arguments in the case on Wednesday morning.
Justice William Koch repeatedly questioned both sides, using case law from the late 1800s. “It’s fascinating that all these arguments were made back to 1865,” Koch said.
The case law represented prior arguments about the burden placed on voters — and how far was too far. In one case, Nashville required voters to vote from home and notify the city whenever they changed residences.
Barrett called the current state-issued photo ID requirement an “overreach” that resulted in 650 residents being turned away from the polls last year.
However, state Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter said the state is attempting to protect the purity of the ballot box. She also mentioned that the Memphis library was run by the city, thus not considered a state entity capable of issuing valid voter photo IDs.
Justices Sharon Lee and Cornelia Clark both pointed out perceived flaws in current state law — including a lower burden for absentee ballots that don’t require a photo ID.
The case, however, could come down to whether the justices find acquiring photo ID is an “impossible and oppressive” restriction on voters.
Koch expressed concern that approving the Memphis library cards could be a slippery slope that allows other forms of ID to pass.
“That’s going to open a broad spectrum of [acceptable IDs],” Koch said.