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Will long lines sink photo ID law?

Getting a driver’s license in Tennessee is a test of skill and endurance, but I’m not talking about the road test or written exam, I’m talking about the crazy long lines. Getting a driver’s license in Tennessee is a test of skill and endurance, but I’m not talking about the road test or written exam, I’m talking about the crazy long lines.

 Lines go with the teritory at the diver’s license center at 6340 Summer Ave. (Photo by Tyrone P. Easley)

On Friday, I joined 40 people in an outdoor line at 6340 Summer Ave about 12:30 p.m. We huddled together outside of the service center for nearly two hours, standing one-behind the other in 90-plus degree temperatures and punishing humidity. There were no chairs, no water and no restroom breaks. As I steamed, my hair gallantly fought off frizz.

The security guard called four to five customers at a time inside, where we then stood in a second line for 45 additional minutes. It was then we received a customer number and the official wait began. (The Tennessee Department of Public Safety does not officially begin tracking its customer wait time until patrons receive this service ticket. Up to that point, we were just there visiting and hanging out.)

At the information desk, customers had the first opportunity to talk to an employee who could answer questions and review supporting documents including birth certificates, social security cards, proof of residency, etc. Several of my fellow line companions were sent home because their documents failed to meet state standards.

Imagine waiting in a line for three hours, only to walk away empty handed. Our hearts go out to them. Hopefully, they found the nerve to try again and kinder temperatures to wait around in.

Across the nation, making jokes about the long lines at the driver’s license service centers is a part of Americana. In Tennessee, this spectator sport has taken a sinister turn as a result of the General Assembly-tightened voter ID laws. Wanna-be voters in 2012 will need a driver’s license or a government approved photo ID. That means you have to stand in line here to get to the polls on Election Day. That’s no joking matter.

Studies indicate about 10 percent of the population nationally lack these credentials, and many of them are either low-income, elderly or students. When that wait time stretches to four hours, – two of it spent standing still, outdoors, in the scorching sun – that’s asking a lot. In fact, one might even argue that asking people to stand in the hot sun for two hours is just as much a deterrent as a poll tax might be.

What’s disturbing is how widely the line lengths vary in Tennessee. (The correlation between an area’s racial makeup and the length of one’s wait also is worrisome.) In Chattanooga, the average wait time at the Cherokee Boulevard location is less than 19 minutes for services. The average wait time statewide is between 45 and 48 minutes, according to Driver Services Director Michael Hogan. (My wait time, in contrast, was just over 4 hours. That includes my time standing outside the building – time that the state does not include in its wait time calculations.)

Hogan told me that the longest wait times are in urban areas, which have the greatest demand for services. This also happens to be where the bulk of the state’s minority populations reside. Ninety percent of the people waiting alongside me were African American, Asian or Hispanic.

Asked if the variation in wait times for photo ids might violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which bars different standards from being applied to individuals within a jurisdiction, Hogan replied, “I am not familiar with the Voting Rights Act.” Fortunately, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) was and he told me that he reached out this week to the U.S. Justice Department to determine what they are doing to protect voter rights, and if more can be done.

Hogan suggested the line waiters might go to underutilized service centers, but I pointed out that for many minority, low-income voters and college students, driving to Millington or Oakland, Tenn., is not a viable option.

Even though this line was one of the worst I’ve ever stood in, Hogan seemed sincere about customer care and serious about making immediate improvements. And the workers at the Summer driver’s center did a great job, working under difficult circumstances with frustrated people. I commended their professionalism to their boss.

Hogan was empathetic and apologetic when we talked this week. “We are going to bring in water, we are going to bring in some form of shelter. Our goal is to make sure we get everyone in the building. We are going to promote other outlets where you don’t have to wait,” he said.

I wanted to pass along that apology – and some newly announced changes – to my fellow line standers.

1) The fire marshal limits the number of customers (55) who can be inside the Summer Ave. building. At peak demand times – typically between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. – patrons must wait outside, Hogan explained. Memphians will be advised to use the newly expanded Whitehaven driver service center, which just reopened in May at 3200 East Shelby Drive and handles more than three times the capacity as the Summer location. The new Whitehaven Center includes expanded customer service desks and replaces a smaller facility that was unable to adequately serve customers. While there is a wait time there as well, customers can sit in air-conditioned comfort. The Millington Driver Service Center at 5019 West Union is a third option.

2) Anyone with a health issue that may be aggravated by extreme heat is advised to contact the security guard, Hogan said. These customers – along with those with physical challenges – are allowed to wait indoors.

3) Summer supervisors have been reminded that they should be monitoring the lines to determine if patrons have the appropriate documents. Those who need additional material will receive detailed instructions so they do not end up standing in line a third or fourth time, Hogan said.

4) The department has a restructuring plan in place to reduce wait times. The Tennessee General Assembly has appropriated $30 million for a new computer system to replace the outdated system that the state comptroller cited in a recent performance audit as a contributing factor to the service issues. Unfortunately, the new system will not be online before the 2012 presidential election. In addition, the department is expanding partnerships with county clerks to offer limited services and is piloting the concept of supercenters, which will be equipped to serve larger numbers of customers.

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