February 2, 2012

The majority leaders of both houses of the Tennessee Legislature have filed bills to expand the availability of photo identification cards, a tacit acknowledgement that the state’s new law requiring the cards is flawed.

The bills also could impose new costs on cash-strapped counties so their residents can comply with the controversial law that was passed last year.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, are sponsors of bills that would authorize county commissions to issue free photo ID cards. Another bill, also sponsored by Norris and McCormick, would declare identification cards issued by city and county governments to be valid for voting purposes.

Other bills filed this session include one that would lower the age threshold for voting absentee on request from 65 to 60 and another that would allow state employees to keep their photo IDs for voting purposes upon retirement. Yet another would allow college and university ID cards to be used for voting. Democrats have filed a bill that would repeal the voter ID law altogether.

The spate of laws attempting to expand the types of identification cards eligible for use under the law is evidence that the law, which requires voters to show a photo ID at the polls, won’t work as intended and could be unconstitutional.

The voter ID law requires that everyone casting a ballot in Tennessee must show an approved photo ID, such as a driver’s license, before voting. There are some exceptions, but for the most part those without an approved photo ID will be denied the opportunity to vote.

Tennesseans can get free photo ID cards at driver’s license centers, but for residents of many rural counties that means long journeys that impose a hefty burden on them.

The Norris-McCormick bill that would authorize county commissions to provide free photo IDs is a laudable attempt to expand access to IDs. County commissions, however, especially those in rural areas with high unemployment that are pinching pennies to meet basic services, likely will balk at absorbing the costs of providing the IDs. Unfunded mandates from Nashville are just as vexing as unfunded mandates from Washington.

Voting is the basic form of political expression in a representative democracy, and unreasonable impediments to voting are unconstitutional. An Indiana law similar to Tennessee’s has been upheld by the courts, but there’s no guarantee Tennessee’s statute will fare as well. The fact that so many lawmakers see the need to amend the law points to their realization that Tennessee’s law places unreasonable demands on voters.

The stated reason for passing the law in the first place was to stop voter fraud. There’s little evidence of pervasive voter fraud, however, and it would not be surprising if the courts strike down the law when the inevitable legal challenges arise.

The measures pending in the Legislature constitute a last-ditch attempt to fix a law that was defective at its inception.


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