Voters in Memphis can use a photo ID card issued from the public library system there to vote, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
Legislators and political interest groups across the spectrum have mixed feelings about the ruling, which overturned a lower court’s decision on the validity of library identification cards but upheld an earlier decision that the state’s voter ID law is constitutional.
"While allowing library cards clearly violates the legislative intent of this law, the court rightly affirmed the law's constitutionality,” said Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, a Blountville Republican.
He added, “Tennessee's voter ID law is necessary, proper and completely constitutional. This has been made plain by the courts and remains undisputed.”
House Speaker Beth Harwell said she is unsure whether the Republican-led General Assembly next year will have the desire to beef up the law and further restrict what IDs can be used to vote, but is happy the court agreed with the legislature’s bigger picture of the law’s constitutionality.
“We may not agree on what that photo ID should be, but certainly they have not struck down the idea that you should have a photo ID when you vote,” Harwell said.
The court issued the decision one week after hearing arguments on the appeal, expediting the ruling given that early voting locations have been open since Oct. 17 and the Nov. 6 election is less than two weeks away.
Lawyers representing the city of Memphis and two residents whose votes weren’t counted when they voted with library cards in the August primary election said they’re pleased the city has been “vindicated,” but still question the law’s constitutionality.
“We were disappointed the statute was held constitutional and we’re reviewing our options,” said Nashville attorney George Barrett.
Mike Turner, a leading House Democrat representing Old Hickory, said he is torn over the court’s decision. Ruling that library cards can be used in Memphis to vote “is a step in the right direction,” but the decision was “not as good as I’d hoped for,” he said.
“The intent was to suppress voters from voting,” he said. “I’m disappointed they didn’t overturn it like a lot of states have done.”
Even with opening the door to allow library cards to operate as IDs acceptable at the ballot box, Tennessee’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the law still disenfranchises voters.
“Today’s ruling at least helps Memphians meet the onerous photo ID requirement, but we remain committed to promoting access to the ballot box for all of the Tennesseans whose vote is still burdened by the photo ID law,” said Hedy Weinberg, the chapter’s executive director.
In a conference call to reporters late Thursday, state officials said they expect to appeal the court's decision Friday under a Supreme Court rule, which would automatically maintain the current practice to deny use of a library ID, said Mark Goins, coordinator of the state Division of Elections.
"We're kind of changing the rules of the game during the game," he said. "Obviously, you can see this creates some problems for us as far as training our poll workers," he said.
Of the 725,000 voters statewide, officials have recorded 67 people voting with provisional ballots because they lacked proper ID. Of those, 29 returned with proper identification, allowing their vote to count.
For now, Memphis voters who only show their library ID card will be instructed to vote on a provisional ballot, but it's unclear whether the vote will be counted, said Goins.
Some suggest if the ruling sticks, it could open up doors for other municipalities to issue other IDs used to vote.
“The ruling clearly states that city-issued library cards lawfully fulfill the requirements of the photo ID to vote law,” said Mary Mancini, executive director for Tennessee Citizen Action, which has attacked state and local officials for voting inconsistencies this election cycle.
“It should send a clear message to the Tennessee State Legislature that their attempts last session to limit allowable IDs to only a handful were both restrictive and excessive,” she said.