Debate rages over new Tennessee voter-ID law

On July 18, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

By Scott Carroll, Commercial Appeal
July 18, 2011

With the recent passage of a state bill that changes what qualifies as valid voter identification, Memphis — and Tennessee — has entered a national conversation on whether such laws are justified or acts of voter intimidation.

The bill, which requires voters to present a government-issued photo ID at the polls, becomes law on Jan. 1.

Though proponents of the bill have said it will help curb voter fraud, some contend that it’s a measure by Republicans to suppress Democratic votes in 2012 elections.

State and local elected officials gathered at the Mt. Olive CME Cathedral Church near Downtown on Sunday afternoon for a forum on the bill, where about 50 attendees from across Memphis posed questions to the representatives.

At the forum, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., called the bill a political tactic reminiscent of Karl Rove, the controversial former Republican political strategist and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush

“It’s ‘Rovian’ — Karl Rove-type thinking — that’s purpose is to dissuade Democrats from having the opportunity to vote,” Cohen said. “This is not about fraud, no matter what they say. It’s about stopping minorities, who will be disproportionately impacted, from participating in the elections to re-elect Barack Obama as president in 2012.”

Cohen said students, racial minorities and those of a lower socioeconomic standing — all of whom traditionally vote Democratic — are the ones least likely to possess or be able to afford a driver’s license or passport, two accepted forms of ID under the bill.

Provisional ballots may be cast by those without such an ID, with the requirement that one be presented within 48 hours. People 65 and older and absentee voters are excluded from the bill.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, was one of several at the forum who shared Cohen’s sentiment. He touched on civil rights questions raised by the bill before commenting on its political implications.

“It’s not about government,” he said. “It’s about beating Obama by any means necessary. And what we’ve found is that they’re not afraid to use the power that they have in order to increase their power … and by ‘they,’ I mean the Republicans.”

State-reported incidents of voter fraud compose less than one percent of all ballots cast, with about half of those incidents leading to a voter-fraud conviction.

The numbers seem very small, but a spokesman for the state’s Republican legislative majority said that since every vote counts, every vote should be legitimate.

“Even 1 percent, as we’ve seen time and again, can sway an election,” said Brent Leatherwood, communications director for the House majority. “Given that, even one incident of fraud is far too many. We want to stop that and, clearly, Democrats do not.”

And with more than 10,000 dead voters purged from the state’s registered voters roll last year, Leatherwood was confident in the need for the bill.

“The only individuals this bill will disenfranchise are dead people whose votes should never count in elections,” he said.

State Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said the bill will be a step toward protecting citizens’ rights, keeping the vote legitimate by protecting its use by illegal immigrants and other unauthorized voters.

“It’s not about partisanship, it’s about citizenship,” he said.

The question for many attendees of Sunday’s forum was, “What can we do about this?”

Sidney Chism, Shelby County Commission chairman, offered a blunt response at the conclusion of the session.

“They can’t change (the law),” he said, pointing to Shelby County Election Commission representatives. “The law’s already on the books and there’s nothing they can do about it. … I challenge you to mobilize and to educate your people in your communities.”

Many bills came in late frenzy

Pressed by GOP leaders to end the legislative session earlier than usual, the General Assembly passed 154 bills in the final three days of the session, 30 percent of the year’s entire package of enacted legislation.

According to an analysis of public records, lawmakers moved out 133 of them in the final two days. That number was about one-quarter of the 510 bills that the Secretary of State’s office lists as passing both chambers during the Jan. 11 to May 21 session.

Among the bills were items that were extensively debated, such as reshaping tenure and collective bargaining for teachers. Others got little attention, including measures that brought far-reaching changes to how residents are allowed to use the Internet, and must be redone in the next session because of mistakes.

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