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Separate & unequal? Cohen asks Justice Dept. to investigate

Congressman Steven Cohen (D-Memphis) is asking U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder to look into a new state law requiring voters to present a valid government photo ID at the polls. As Memphians endure some of the worst conditions and longest lines at local driver’s license service centers, Congressman Steven Cohen (D-Memphis) is asking U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder to look into a new state law requiring voters to present a valid government photo ID at the polls.

 Steve Cohen in D.C.
 Congressman Steve Cohen on Wednesday joined the Rev. Jesse Jackson, other civil rights leaders and members of Congress to stand up for voting rights at the U.S. Capitol and to draw attention to what was described as recent restrictive voting measures that will strip citizens, including Tennesseans, of their constitutional right to vote. (Courtesy photo)

Last Friday, 40 people – approximately 90 percent of them minorities – waited outdoors in a line snaking around the driver’s license center at 6340 Summer Ave. – where the government photo IDs and driver’s licenses now required for voting are available. Many patrons stood in line for up to two hours in 90-plus degree heat without water, shelter or chairs. Their total wait time for service ended up being about four hours. In less populated areas of Tennessee, the wait for service might average 26 minutes or less. The average wait time statewide is between 45 and 48 minutes.

Cohen said he and Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) are preparing a letter to send to Holder urging the Justice Department to investigate whether photo ID laws violate the Voting Rights Act.

“It is important that we always stand up for voting rights,” Cohen said Wednesday (July 13) in Washington D.C. at a press conference supporting voter rights.

 “We cannot let anyone be denied their constitutional right to vote. Just this year, the GOP in my state of Tennessee enacted a new law requiring voters to prove American citizenship and present photo ID at the polls. I’m extremely worried about the effect it will have on voters who want to exercise their constitutional right to participate in our great democracy…All of our other rights stem from the ability to have our voices heard.”

When the Tri-State Defender asked Michael Hogan, the director of the Tennessee driver’s license centers, whether the longer wait lines and less comfortable waiting conditions in some heavily minority areas might violate the spirit of the Voting Rights Act, he replied, “I am not familiar with the Voting Rights Act.” The act bars different standards for individuals within jurisdictions. (Hogan, however, did agree to provide water and shelter to patrons asked to wait in lines outside of the Summer location.)

Cohen told the newspaper that he already had expressed his concerns regarding the long wait times in Memphis to Bill Gibbons, Tennessee’s Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner, and said he asked Gibbons to provide more personnel and more stations. Cohen said he recently waited over an hour in line to renew his license.

On Wednesday, Cohen joined with a coalition of civil rights organizations and leaders in Washington – including the Rev. Jesse Jackson – in standing up for voter rights.

The group sought to spotlight photo ID laws and other measures enacted recently that may make it more difficult for millions of people to vote – especially those who may be low-income, living with family members, or students.

If a Tennessee voter goes to the poll without a proper ID during the upcoming presidential election, he or she will be allowed to vote by provisional ballot, and then will have four days to get their government-issued ID and present it to the Election Commission. All ballots will be cross-referenced with state and federal records to make sure every voter is a U.S. citizen. State-issued driver’s licenses, passports, and military IDs will be accepted forms of identification. School IDs will not be allowed.

In 2011, 47 states either had restrictive voter ID laws in place or saw them introduced, according to Cohen’s office. Eleven percent of voting age citizens in this country – more than 20 million people – lack government ID.

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